Illiciting intense emotions, the negative always supercedes the positive in my memory, pulling raw at the mind and drawing up the darker sides of humanity. The truth is that every challenging story from India was leveraged by a deep positive, as every harassing man was tempered by the encircling protection of women. India, in my experience, is a land of extremes: an ancient civilization embodying the human story. One of the oldest living cities on earth coexisting with progressive technology, rampant cruelty and indifference matched by truly genuine human connection and potential. To stand outside in judgment is dangerous, indicative of a divided perspective on the global community. If Earth were a single organism, then India marks the development of its human aspect. To see its violence and slf-destruction is to contemplate the dangers that humanity lays against itself — our indifference towards the earth, to our slow and unnecessarily-advancing death. To witness the fear, the seeming social decline, the brutality, must be tempered by realizing that aggression is learned, gender dynamics constructed and perpetuated, economic strife the result of unhealthy economic structures. To abandon it is to forget our united desire for life. The privileged, local or global, can choose to withdraw entirely or to engage, learn, grow, and empower others.
To travel there is to be challenged into becoming the best and worst of yourself, to crack open and gaze into the misery and ecstasy of what it means to be human. It is, perhaps, an education in humanity.
As Vishnu and I retrace our steps back up the staircase, I internally curse the police for making me go up it again; all worthwhile once I meet Vishnu’s friend, Deepak (pronounced “dee-puck”) at the top. There’s a view from Deepak’s rooftop which makes up for being chased away.
To get there, we pass through over a worn threshold; the hallway darkens and then gives us to a bright courtyard, safety grates filtering the sun onto the pale gray stone floor. Several woven wooden cages hang to one side of the enclosure, hosting brilliantly plumed birds. I suppress a squeal and try not to fuss over them. His younger sister slips into the courtyard, slender with long braided tresses, apparent innocence shading her inner vitality — a bright wit smoldering beneath the quiet.
Doors reveal shadowy chambers lining the central opening, and this repeats as we take the narrow curling stairs up through layers of family. On every floor a new aunt smiles from the doorway of her kitchen, aided by a hired hand, a girl close to the floor washing the glinting metal dishes used everywhere in India. His family occupies the entire house. Each uncle took a wife and a level, a slice of stone matching his other brothers’.
On the rooftop, the Ganges languishes below us, her expanse immediately overpowering any chaos of Varanasi, her calm gray worshiped belly comforting fears, absorbing prayers, receiving our beloved. Bringing in the frenetic with the spiritual.
The guys joke together and tell me stories, but I am distracted by a little boy attempting to fly a kite on a rooftop below us. He runs, but it doesnt take to the air and I want to call out to him, cheer him on. But he looks too proud, too sure of himself, for me to ruin that. Like so many young people I meet.
We spiral back down through the family tree and set off for the tea shop, where Vishnu introduces me to his mother. She gracefully welcomes me (to my surprise, considering the reputation of white girls) although we don’t have a common language; and gives me the spiciest potatoes that I have ever consumed. In fact, I’ve been fed all day — not a surprising thing once I’m welcomed into a community.
There is a rhythm and ritual to life. For example, the scarf experience:
Varanasi is famous for its fabric, known by the city’s former name, Benares. Remembering a story from earlier in the day, I ask Vishnu to take me to a shop he mentioned, a small place a few doors down from his. A single, white cushion covers the entire floor; we slip off our shoes and pad into the space with introductions and greetings. I settle cross-legged in front of the primary salesperson, and Vishnu lounges back on the side, quiet as i take the lead. The shop seems primarily comprised of linens too heavy to mail, but the man pulls down a rectangular box and introduces a revelation of color. Scarves, smaller than the average Indian dupatta but perfect for a Western woman. They flow out of the box, vibrancy in woven form, two-toned glory flittering across color identities, the glossy fabric billows across the floor in front of my knees. The cushion is designed for this parade, the salesperson doesn’t slow down, pulling out scarf after scarf, fluttering and floating into a stunning mound. Attempting a poker face, I pull out my gift list and count the women — “I’ll take seven.” We choose them carefully, comparing patterns and colors under appreciative fingers until seven, gently folded, rest to the side. Then, the bargaining. Someone orders chai and Vishnu hands out the tiny classic cups of warm spicy tea. The salesman and I begin, sitting upright, drinking, waving our arms around at each price the other suggests. Performed shock. I already know the local price, and shoot lower; we circle and debate until we arrive at exactly the expected price. It would be four to five times that, at least, in the market (for a foreigner). But we’ve come here because they’re honest. The moment the price is settled, the performed tension disappears into cheer and chat. After all that posturing, Vishnu actually has to foot some of the cash, because the sum is more than I am carrying.
Clutching my paper-wrapped bundle, I repay him after an ATM visit, carried forward in the euphoria of the experience, of how comfortable it felt, of how well I was treated, and the simple pleasure of knowing you have brilliant Christmas gifts this year.
Deepak meets us as the tea shop to say goodbye, as I am leaving that night, and Vishnu invites me to return. Genuine friendship, with kindness and grace. And the two, excited and expressive, decorate me with earrings and a necklace chosen from the shop shelves. Every piece of jewelry I have with me on the trip is a gift.
Scrambling and risking being late for my train back to Delhi, I still hold out for the local price when looking for an auto. And walk determinedly in the wrong direction, animatedly bargaining with a particular auto driver who drives slowly alongside me until he gives up and accepts my price. Despite the blustering, once I am in the auto, we both relax into stories, music playing in the background. Somehow, the conversation turns into him teaching me how to count to ten in Hindi. Eck do bin…eck do bin cha…eck do bin cha panch. We shout numbers into the traffic, zooming towards the station. Learnt by sound alone, I am not quite right when quizzed by friends later, but still impressive. Sharing knowledge, breaking down conventional power dynamics, finding common ground.
He asked for money and sex when we arrived, but I laughed at him and walked away. I didn’t care, suspecting that my expressive cheer could have been confusing. The negative wasn’t enough to take away the overwhelmingly positive day.
Varanasi presses close upon the Ganges, buildings in the back elbowing forward to be closer to her sacred waters, compressing streets into crooked cracked pathways limited to pedestrian (foot-hoof-paw) traffic, the city’s blood flow. Most routes are too much for cows, who prefer the airy steps (“ghats”) coating the western bank of Ganga. They stand serene, slowly working over a mouthful of garbage, adding neutral eyes to the staring culture.
Leaving my boatman at the water’s edge, I wander the ghats, floating an awed gaze across the stacks of crumbling stone structures forming a sentinel for Her Holiness. Each an antique, connected to a legend or eminent historical persona.
It is not long before I find my first of the city’s many sacred spiraling trees awarded a portion of its limited space. Encircled and elevated by a stone wall — gate included — this distinguished entity extends its green gold grace to the surrounding inhabitants. A common sight in many parts of the country. Small statues nestle into nooks or carefully balance at the base, one two five maybe more. Sometimes daubs of paint stretching to a thick red ring encircling the trunk. Not necessarily associated with a deity, some simply revered for their age. I’ve seen them interrupt a road: the tree endures and the pavement makes way, splitting and curving around (would anyone do the same in the States?). A scattered sacred forest covering the subcontinent.
A nearby wall hosts a carefully painted sign advertising “Vishnu’s Tea Emporium.” I leave the beloved tree behind and wander deeper into the urban hive, enjoying its aged grace; now with a mild curiosity and hope for a cup of tea.
I’m wrong, though, and it’s a wholesale shop with a smiling young man waiting behind a row of slightly dented tin canisters. Considering my frequent experience of harassment, I hang back, reading one of the small laminated signs decorating the entrance — the chai recipe and instructions i in several different languages; I’m reading the French.
“Bonjour, vous êtes française?”
Potential for harassment decreasing, but he could be one of the many, since he’s, well, young and male. But he actually speaks the language, so I venture in, settling at the low wooden table (the room’s sole furniture), sweeping an evaluative gaze across the multi-lingual book collection propped up inside built-in shelves, and turn my attention back to the shopkeeper. The young fellow plops down across from me. This is Vishnu, the entrepreneur himself; by three sentences’ utterance, his sincerity is obvious, and the conversation grows. I linger in his little shop for hours and we share stories, information, dreams, we discover that we are both twenty-two (he opened his shop when he was seventeen). Friends shout hellos through the shop’s open front; his French teacher joins us for a while, bringing another francophone. Languages mix over tea as Varanasi continues its tumult unnoticed.
Vishnu spoils me, laying out six different samples of black tea, three loose, three rolled, on the wooden table between us, as I sit up, excited and focused. My Irish side revels in the experience, examining every angle and dimension. He runs upstairs to his family’s apartment, returning with an electric kettle and various ingredients. We carefully build a cup of chai, pausing at every level in its development so that I can taste and contemplate its construction, completing the tea-geek-fest with hand-blended masala spices matching the intensity of rolled Assam.
More than the tea event, I am grateful for a genuine friend.