Varanasi I

On my first full day in Varanasi proper, I dove into the crowd in that city, simply to know the experience. The humanity in motion, in this area of no vehicles, is an experience I won’t recommend to the typical westerner; for the simple reason they’d not manage the etiquette well. It requires an instinct. ‘Like ants’ dwarfing any Cecil B DeMille movie scene, transiting the crowd is like mastering an art. With what seemed two centimeters or one inch, maximum space between pedestrians, if that, in a vast sea of people, all in constant motion, there is no jostling, or even contact, AT ALL. You understand you cannot stop and interrupt the flow and nobody does. Like moving with diverse currents in a river, or rivers within rivers, there are eddies where people ingress, and exit. To intelligently traverse from starting point, to destination, you must know how to read the current and align yourself like a molecule of water within the flow, in the desired direction. Now, having said that, I will add I am not satisfied with the description. Even Saigon, as crowded as the streets of that city could be, and where I had enjoyed wandering on several extended occasions, paled by comparison, this was in my thoughts. The experience really does defy words, at least for me. As I observed all of this, in my first ever immersion in any such circulation of humanity, I somehow managed it. I was later to sort this incredible human density was on account of many tens of thousands of pilgrims in the city, to celebrate Dwali or ‘Festival of The Lights’ And there is no way I was ready for what came that evening.

I’d been out and about until it was past drawing dusk, and with the onset of dark, all hell broke loose. The tens of thousands pilgrims, every citizen in the city, and this had to include every beggar saving for the occasion, had bought firecrackers to celebrate. And these were not the tame explosives Americans played with on the Fourth of July, these were what we call ‘cherry bombs’ & ‘M-80s.’ These were powerful explosive devices and sometimes indiscriminately tossed. One went off about a meter in front of me, about chest height, as I was nearly back into the hotel. I didn’t flinch, by now I was in the psychological combat shell of my war zone days. The din was incredible and only growing. I went to my room and reflected on what it must have been like in Saigon for Tet offensive, 1968, a famously intense battle for that city, an event I missed by two years. This was probably a more intense noise, I thought. The intensity sustained, for hours.

The Asians had come up with an explosive substance to create fire crackers for purpose of frightening away bad spirits, the purpose driving that evening’s chaos. The Europeans, having co-opted the Asian invention, were most adept at utilizing the modified substance, renamed ‘gun powder’, to a metal barrel for purpose of hurling a destructive projectile and world history was changed in a few short generations; with firearms combined to the ‘age of discovery’ and resultant colonialism. I wondered if the irony had ever crossed the thoughts of those Indians who considered the British Raj the work of a demon:

Revolt of 1857

^ ‘Blowing from a Gun’ depicted by Vasily Vereshchagin in his painting ‘Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English’ on the events of 1857. Queen Victoria’s agent bought this painting, in an attempt to suppress it. ‘Blowing from the Gun’ was a means of execution where the prisoner is tied to the muzzle of a cannon, which is then fired, popping the victim’s head about 15 meters (50 feet) into the air, apparently a sort of juvenile entertainment for the executioners

I recall reflecting on these sort of thoughts as I sequestered myself in the hotel for the duration of that evening. The day had, into evening, recalled both; the best and the worst of my experience in Vietnam, an American attempt at social engineering, with hindsight wisdom, I have come to call ‘neo-colonialism.’

This was the only time in India where my nerves were actually somewhat raw, this despite negotiating an exit from some very real violence, on a quite large scale, before the trip was out. Of course my interpretation of the city’s festival is at odds with its intent; but it was Socket™ had informed me the cotton pashmina scarf I’d bought in Varanasi was ‘auspicious’ on account of it was of a checkered design preferred by Indira Ghandi. I’d actually thought it was Palestinian motif. For some, it would seem everything in India is seen in a sense of omen.


My Madcap Adventure (all episodes)

Letter to the De Sousa clan of India