Hey Banaras

Hey Banaras,

It’s me. The one who… you know… well actually I guess you probably don’t know me. I’m really just one of the many people who has come and now is going, driven away by the heat. Your heat.

Really I don’t know what to say. To you I must be like all the other foreigners, even the flies who come and go with the seasons. Small, short-lived, barely worth your notice. Still, I’m writing to you. Partially because I’ve been instructed to, and also well because I feel like I should thank you, even if it’s presumptuous to suppose you care. I’m sure the flies think they’re special too.

In my mind, Banaras, you begin at the river. Washing, boating, cremating—so much becomes purer here. The scientific reality of sewage overflow and bacteria count. . . I know it, but when I look out at the Ganga river it’s so hard to believe. The calm currents and ripples, the sunlight reflecting brighter than the sky, everything seems so unsullied. And the people who go daily to bathe, do rituals, wash their clothes—somehow, your dirty water makes them clean.

And from the curve of the river spread the ghats, mud and bright paint side by side. Walking on the steps I watched people act out their public lives and deaths. To me, Banaras, you are the place where an old man sits next to a screaming baby, where women can do puja where boys swim, where color splashes over the dirt. Where boats line up for tourists, and candles emulate the moon.

And up the steps, beyond the river, you stretch out so much farther. You are the narrow gullies to get lost and found in, the painted metal rickshaws lined up at crossings. The dust, the wind, the bobbing paper kites. You are constantly physically present. People walk holding hands or with their arms over each others’ shoulders. Cow droppings pattern the pavement. Incense hangs on the air. Trash burns in a corner. Food, necklaces, gods, and sanitary pads color shop windows. Water runs in the river, on the street, and sometimes out of the taps. The electricity comes, the electricity goes. Something I took for granted is a generous, grudging gift. You are the music that throbs through my dreams, a deep, energy-filled lullaby.

You are market-streets where women in saris sell vegetables outside of convenience stalls hung with plastic packets of chips. Temples filled with pundits and devotes, pushing and yelling and demanding money, and tiny shrines propped against the base of all the big “people” trees, wrapped around with red and orange string. Bikes, auto rickshaws, pedestrians, cars, and cows all on the same road. You are an old city made new every day.

You are people I have met and shared a moment with. Shopkeepers, gurus, priests, children. You are the friends I danced with, the family I ate with, and the businessmen I argued with. Students who called me ma’am and asked me questions. Those who promise they will write to me, and those who forgot me as I walked past.  Every person who met my eyes and smiled or frowned or cried.

You are the ability to interact with all these people. To say hello and start my explanation one more time—from America, mother’s Indian, grandparents live in Mumbai, learning Hindi, teaching English and science, and what’s your name?—or just sit down nearby and watch. You are the frustrating moments too—heat, sickness, loneliness—and how I discovered I could get over, make light of, or learn from them. You are responsibility, for myself and for others. And after pushing me to do something new, you are the joy of successes, small and large. I found a drum. I make a round chapatti. I taught a class. You are independence, a driving, teaching force in your seeming uncaring.

As I look around, Banaras, I see that your entity is actually an entirety—the river, the people, the buildings, the cows. You are dirty and you are clean; you are holy and crazy and beautiful. The heat, the bugs, even tourists like me, every one of them adds a ripple, some reflection, a single drop to your holy water. I am not the city, but I am for a brief moment, a part of the city, just as a drop of water flows through the river. And the cool thing about water is it doesn’t really disappear. It moves, it changes, even leaves… but some monsoon storm it comes back, different and yet once again there.

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