I will never understand Varanasi, this ancient city of spirituality, holiness and all things that are human. But I feel as though I’ve been given a glimpse of what this city is all about, through the eyes of a small, gregarious and incredibly grounded man named Pramod.
The friend of a friend, Pramod opened his heart, city and home to us over the past 48 hours, and in doing so opened our eyes and minds to a place so complex and unapproachable that we had been tempted to pass it by. I lay awake last night replaying in my mind the images of a day visiting Varanasi with Pramod Sahani, and I am haunted by the memories.
We had been forewarned by friends who have been here: the city is a whirling mass of humanity, of quintessential Indian life with all its bodily functions in full display, of incredible spirituality manifested in every aspect of daily life, and of death.
Desperately poor garbage pickers, human filth everywhere and the crush of humanity pressing as close as it can to the holy Ganges in a daily pilgrimage that has gone on here for over 2,000 years.
What we found was a Varanasi under extreme duress yet in a state of incomparable grace: The mighty Ganges has surged its banks and flown into the city, unabated. Everywhere were the floods, challenging an already distressed population to deal with yet another dose of life’s cruelty.
With Pramod literally holding our hands, we witnessed not only the tragedy of this place but the impossible strength with which its people embrace all that life has to give.
We waded through knee-deep water fouled by raw sewage to get to and from our hotel. We climbed a dank and dark staircase to the home of Pramod’s pregnant sister and husband, where we sat on the bed of their tiny hovel and got a view of what life looks like from the perspective of urban poor here.
We drove in a tuk tuk to an enormous pink temple at the local Hindu university, where we witnessed acts of deep devotion from a diverse population in commitment to their faith.
We stopped by the side of the road under a rail overpass and bought apples and bananas to hand out to the poor of the nearby garbage heaps, making brief contact with glistening eyes that reflected a moment of gratitude.
We sat in a poor man’s open boat as he poled along what normally are narrow streets ringed with shops but are all shuttered now, their owners forced into a month-long holding pattern with no income by the rising waters.
And we sat, spellbound, as we listened to holy men conduct the hour-long blessing to the river that has gone on here every night for centuries. Hypnotized by sound of chanting, singing and banging drums, mesmerized by the vision of incense wafting across the waters of the Ganges, and of countless rose petals offered by human hands to the gods of the river that give life and take death from these people, we look at Pramod, who slowly rocks back and forth in rhythm to the ceremony’s music.
We learned of Pramod’s life. Of his wife and three sons, two of whom have been sent to live in a safer place, as, like countless of his neighbors’, Pramod’s home has succumbed to the rising water, forcing the family from the first to the second floor. We learned that he spends his days at home, denied the chance to work by the waters that closed the silk shop where he works and kept tourists away from this beleaguered city.
We saw the pressures on his stooped shoulders as shared with us the facts of his life, and we felt the warmth of his hand in ours, his arm around our shoulders, and his genuine embrace as we briefly grew to know him.
And we witnessed the ceaseless smiles, quick laughter and peaceful acceptance from a man who possesses little yet seems to have everything he truly needs close at hand.
We will leave Varanasi as have many others: confused, conflicted, enlightened and offended by the despair we have witnessed during our brief stay. But we also leave with a reminder of the potential of the human spirit, through the boundless power, strength and dignity of our new friend Pramod.
Note: We are forever indebted to our dear friend Noel Lindquist for introducing us to Pramod, his family and his life, and through our mutual friendship learning a little bit more about this incredible country and its people.