Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Vandana of Varanasi

I encountered her by accident: the reason one travels.

I was staying in a flat outside of the noise and din of Varanasi, the holiest city of Hinduism, far removed from my first visit to Mother India in the deep south of the country, the state of Tamil Nadu, locus of the glory of the Hindu religion and her temples, away from the slaughter and destruction of the Muslims further north, that fake religion of peace which threatens the civilized world wherever it spreads, like a virus.

Here I had gone north. The difference was substantial but similar. The ear piercing cacophony of Indian traffic is an assault when first encountered. Then, like everything in life I suppose, one gets used to it and the noise fades to mere background. I've become adept at the notorious Indian "head wobble" signifying something (yet I somehow manage always to know when to deploy it), as well as making way for cows on the road. Don't pet them, by the way.

The city is also known as Benares, Banaras or Kashi. Puts me in mind of Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul. Some of our world cities have long histories behind their current label.

Except Rome, eternal Rome.

As Mark Twain said: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend  and looks twice as old as all of them put together!”

India is Hindu. I've only ever been there to observe. And learn. I'm not a convert. Isn't learning enough?

* * * * 

Like some story board from a movie, I met Vandana on one of my last days in Varanasi. I was staying in a VRBO above where she lived, tight against the ghats on the Ganges, the owner a literal descendant of Indian royalty. The dismantling of them by Nehru is second only to his agreement of the partition of the subcontinent. Some crimes cannot be forgiven.

* * * * 

I had two keys. The first let me out of the yard of my flat, into the back, toward the river, the Ganges, universally called "Ganga" in India. That name was foreign to this foreigner. What do they know? I preferred my own pronunciation but never spoke it. When in Rome. 

The second key was to a gate that allowed me to climb down the steep steps to the Ganges, steep as in if you fell forward you'd be dead by the time your carcass flopped onto the landing. A shabby death, as a dear friend of mine might call it.

When I looked right, instead of left, that's when I saw Vandana. The steepness of the steps never changed in either direction but there were fewer of them to the right than to the left.

I'm not entirely sure why I climbed those steps to the right but I did. She spoke limited English but I spoke no Hindi. She was a bright young girl, self possessed and charming and with a modicum of English. "Hey mister!"

She took me left, around the corner where the steps ended and then showed me a litter of puppies. Other Indians immediately crowded round as she showed them off to me. Here's a white guy, an obvious visiter (no matter where I travel abroad I don't think of myself as a tourist. Some may find that a conceit; I think of it as a mindset). Four, or six, I can't remember. Cute as only dog or cat babies can be.

After making nice for awhile, I told Vandana that I had to be off to the Ganges. We'd rounded back around the corner and she invited me in for chai into, apparently, her family's home. I declined with all the graciousness that pigeon English and hand gestures could muster. She understood but asked if I was on WhatsApp. I confessed I was and so phone numbers were exchanged.

* * * *

I dropped off several kilos of puppy chow to her before I left Varanasi. One can only do so much, but wherever one is, one should do that much, at home or abroad. I also gave her a 500 rupee note (with my right hand, by the way, never the left). She knew at a glance what it meant and thanked me, profusely if she had had her way but I made my exit quickly. Many people live for thanks while I've always found it a personal indictment.

* * * * 

Vandana texted me via WhatsApp for awhile after I returned to America, always calling me "uncle," a term of respect for older men who are not literal family relations. I responded as best I could, given the language and age barriers. After some time, she went silent. I don't know if her family could continue to afford an internet plan or not. Food first.

* * * * 

I don't know why Vandana returned to me, why I'm only writing about her now for the first time, more than a year later. Possibly because I know I can't travel this spring (Berlin/Vienna), although I always go to India in the Fall, which is still likely to happen, so I'm not sure that's it. 

Likely it's because when people ask why I "vacation" so much, as opposed to what I do, which is travel, she's the reason.