Mucking About: Stepping Into The Unknown On The Banks Of The Ganges

Stair-stepped ghats hug the western shore of the Ganges River like a string of very old pearls, one after the other, fused together by faith and history and mud. The stairs link the mucky dung-spattered streets on land to the murky brown water of the holy river below, with riotous colors of fabric and flowers between.

I was expecting more dead bodies in Varanasi – really, burning bodies everywhere – for this is the place Hindus come to die, hoping for instant liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. But instead I discover that only two of the dozens of ghats are “burning ghats,” stacked with wood and smoldering funeral pyres. Most everywhere else, people are just very busy living. Some do cremate their loved ones here, but most engage in more quotidian tasks.

They wash dishes, wash clothes, wash their bodies. Mothers cook, feeding twigs into compact wood cook stoves and food into hungry mouths. People sell things; they buy things. They pray and dunk themselves in the water vigorously, jumping up and down as they fulfill a lifelong Hindu requirement to bathe in the waters of the Ganges. Others light candles and incense and circumambulate the grand broad-leafed pipul trees where I’m sure all these deliciously pagan-disguised-as-Hindu rituals originated, the idea of God and greater things tumbling from the branches like dappled sunlight.
While children string garlands of radiant marigold flowers, sadhus do yoga. Young boys fly kites and launch their lithe bodies into the river, flailing skinny arms and legs before they land with a splash. Men sit in circles playing cards. They squat and shit in not-so-discreet places and urinate anywhere. (Women find ways to be private in these matters.) Straightedge razors glide across chins and scalps, sometimes in preparation for a ritual and sometimes just to clean up. Come nightfall, bodies slumber, covered head-to-toe with thin blankets. In the past week, I have seen humans performing almost every act that fills a human life except the one that makes more life. For that, my eyes drift, just for a moment, to the stray dogs and randy bulls that roam the narrow alleyways.

I’m staying on the southern end of the series of ghats, at the Assi Ghat, named for the river that once flowed into the Ganges at this spot. The river is no longer here because city planners and civil engineers decided to move it south a few years back, part of a complex plan to Save the Ganga that has gone terribly awry at every juncture over the last 25 years. The Holy Ganga – the goddess whose fall from the sky was broken when Lord Shiva caught her in his locks of hair – is now thick with heavy metals, pesticides, human waste and industrial effluent. All attempts to clean her sullied waters have failed. But to bathe in her waters is to tick a checkbox on the to-do list for achieving moksha, final release from the interminable cycle of samsara in which we humans are trapped, lives sentenced to deaths that only lead to more lives and more deaths.

Remnants of Hindu blood pass through my veins, but this river is not holy to me. My father’s family, from South India, has traveled here for pilgrimage. My grandparents came once, a long while back, though they died in the South, their ashes spread in a river a thousand miles from here. Aunts and uncles and cousins have been more recently.

My father hasn’t made it to the Ganges, though; his own pilgrimage was a one-way journey to the United States in 1959, a young engineer in search of a PhD. The only relic of Hinduism he carried was a small wood-framed image of Saraswati, the goddess of education and knowledge. In an Indiana college campus chapel, he married a midwestern woman who had outgrown the Jesus of her childhood, just as he had removed his sacred Brahmin thread. Together they raised me in a seaside town, where I found my own holy ways in the waters of the pond behind my house and the rivers that drained into the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles away.

All that liquid life created my own desire for communion with water, which I seek out wherever I travel. Yet I feel no such pull toward these polluted waters. Last week, I made one tentative dip of a finger into the river while on a boat ride (just to say that I had), but that was enough contact for me. I am a science journalist traveling in India as I write a book about the environment. I have read too many bleak studies. A billion liters of raw sewage seep into the Ganges each day, causing cholera outbreaks and virulent E. coli strains. Lead, cadmium and other heavy metals, along with PCBs and organochlorine pesticides all swirl in her eddies. And now that I’m here, the anecdotes back up the science. One local tells me he rubs his body with mustard oil before taking his daily Hindu ablution and washes again at home afterwards, to reduce the rashes.

Yet for most Hindus, the Ganges remains inviolably sacrosanct. Vendors sell plastic water bottles to pilgrims so they can carry her water home to share with others unable to make the journey. Five years ago, I watched in horror as my father, recovering from surgery in a hospital in South India, was offered a vial of the grey Gangetic water to drink, a blessing from a kind friend to aid my father’s healing. (He politely refused.) One can view something as so sacred that no foul substance should ever be allowed to defile it. Or one can believe that something is so sacred that nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever desecrate it, no matter how toxic or dirty.

The moving of the river Assi has not helped clean the water one bit. Instead it left a deluge of silt on the shores. I’m told that while mud has always washed over the ghats with each monsoon season, it’s even worse after the river relocation. The clay is 15 feet deep at Assi Ghat, and every day men with fire hoses force the dirt back into the water to continue its passage downstream, along with human remains and Durga statue sacrifices and offerings of flowers still trapped in plastic bags.

It’s here on this clay deposit that I’ve decided to take a wander one morning at dawn, as a fiery sun rises through the smoke and haze. A group of men are rolling what appears to be a dead cow toward the river when it suddenly kicks and tries to stand up, startling them all in a Monty Python moment. Broad wooden boats cluster at the shore, unloading passengers and awaiting others. I pause by two men sitting on the clay that has hardened and cracked like the surface of a desert, watching as they paint lovely soft-hued watercolors of the buildings along the shore, glowing with the dawn light. The clanging of morning puja bells emanates from the small temple under a pipul tree up by the sidewalk, where men sit drinking chai tea, and I head toward them. And then, with one step, my right foot vanishes. In retrospect, my next step should have been back, not forward – but forward I go, and the lower half of my left leg vanishes completely.

What trouble have I gotten myself into now? It was more than a morning wander that sucked me into this muck. It was a pull to roam that has greater control over me than I like to admit. Such insistent desires are why I’ve left my home, my garden, my love, to travel solo across India, doing research for a book, for months on end. And while South India is a place where I have homelands of the heart, places where there is family who will welcome me and nourish my body and soul, I have not made time for such destinations in my itinerary. I have sought out the unfamiliarity of the North, where the Hindi language is nothing more than sounds whirling in my ears. I let the stories I seek take me where they will. And each time I arrive in a new place, still the urge to wander more fidgets in my feet and I am up at dawn, trying to figure out where to roam next. On prior walks in other unknown towns, I’ve ended up on desolate roads with leering men. I’ve explored hidden nooks in a fortress wall … and stumbled upon couples fully engaged in private affairs. Now, I seem to have found quicksand.

Somehow, I’m able to pull my right foot out, my sandal completely smeared with the colorless clay. But my other leg is lost. There is no bottom to press my sole against, and so I freeze and look up. Because this is India (population 1 billion and counting), I am not alone. The two chai-sipping men sitting under the tree (which seemed so close a moment ago and now is an achingly long 50 feet away) see my predicament. “Go back!” one calls out, while the other, waving his arms, motions me to retreat. But I can’t move at all. I shrug and shake my head.

A visit to India, and Varanasi in particular, is always met with warnings of “touts,” a word we seldom use back home though we, too, are besieged with advertising from every direction, imploring us to purchase something we may or may not need. Somehow we’re more troubled by an individual wanting to sell us peanuts or a boat ride than a barrage of car and drug ads booming from our television sets. But the India I have often experienced is one where more people want to help than harangue. Ask one man a question and four will appear like iron filings to a magnet to proffer an answer, maybe even based in a smidgeon of truth. When one cycle rickshaw driver left me far from my destination a few days earlier, a random passerby stepped in to assist me.

So I am not surprised when the men set down their tea and rush to my rescue, traveling on the hardened path amid the quicksand, the safe passage that I had missed. The two men each reach out their hands and I clasp them, abandoning the shoe as my leg slides out with a loud sucking sound. They call over a small boy who carries a wicker basket with delicate cups of marigolds and candles, which he sells for river offerings to pilgrims and tourists. Someone holds the basket while his tiny frame floats atop the clay that my weight sank into, and he sticks his thin arm down the bottomless hole to fish out my sandal.

As quickly as they came and before I can even utter dhanyavad in thanks, the men vanish. The boy, Raju – the only hero whose name I get – and two other children with their baskets of flowers are now leading me back down a hundred feet to the water’s edge. Sticky as glue under my bare feet, the clay is the same color as the warm water of the Ganges that we use to wash away the mud, the difference merely a matter of concentration. But with enough splashing, the silt slips away into the river. I give Raju some rupees for saving my left shoe, and me, and then I squish my way back in my soggy sandals to my guesthouse, intact but for a humbling dose of humiliation. Only later do I learn that just a week ago another woman slipped into the same mire … and it took a crew of people, including one man stuck up to his neck, three hours to get her out.

Belatedly, back at the guesthouse, I suddenly realize I have taken my requisite Hindu bath in the Holy Ganges. I think my grandparents would be happy, that is if their souls weren’t already busy living new lives, or, perhaps, tripping the light fantastic of moksha. What they would think of my solo wanderings around India, I’m less certain. But just as they were dedicated to the recurring rituals of their daily faith, I am hooked to inching my toes into the unknown muck of unexplored horizons. My pilgrimage has no endpoint, no set destination ordained by the gods. The peregrinations themselves are the purpose, and the stories of the people I meet along the way carry as much weight to me as Lord Shiva must have felt when he caught the heft of the tumbling goddess Ganga.

For my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, Varanasi is the place where Shiva whispers his secret “mantra of the crossing” to whisk you at death to spiritual liberation. It is where the Ganges concentrates the energy of the Great Goddess that courses through India, and through their own veins. For me, this city and this river mark the sacred site where Raju and a cohort of strangers saved me from sinking, releasing me so I could continue on my own wayward sacred journey, in search of other stories.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user martinvogt]

Skateboarding Through India

Extreme sports videos don’t get enough credit as artistic travelogues. For all the flinch-inducing, jaw-dropping athletic skill on display, the real star of extreme sports videos is often not the stunt-happy main character – it’s the backdrop. Take for instance Danny Macaskill’s rampart-flipping, phone booth-hopping mountain bike riding on the Isle of Skye. The video’s fine-grained camera work and textured shots show off his native northern Scotland in a way that virtually eclipses the bicycle trickery going on in the foreground. Another great example is Ryan Doyle’s parkour video in Dubai. His rolls and gainers through souks and off bagdirs are OK and everything, sure, but it’s the backdrop that shines through.

So it is as well with skateboarder Killian Martin’s new video above. As the freestyler spins and caspers his way through India, the director, Brett Novak, manages to sell the subcontinental playground better than most Indian tourism campaigns I’ve seen. The takeaway is clear: if you work for a tourism board, hire a wingsuit diver, an artistic extreme sports director and an indie band, and watch the tourists stream in.

India’s Human-Powered Ferris Wheel

In India there’s a man for everything – the wallah. The chai-wallah dispenses your tea. The auto-wallahs drive the ubiquitous auto rickshaws. The dhobi-wallah does your laundry. They are India’s indefatigable industrious core and the exact opposite of a jack-of-all-trades.

The mastery with which these wallahs perform their one task is often mesmeric to watch. A chai-wallah mixes his liquid ingredients with a balletic grace, launching a pot full of boiling spiced tea across space precisely into a waiting cup. The auto-wallahs navigate through gaps in traffic with an instinct that borders on precognition. The dhobi-wallah’s metronomic dunking and slapping of shirts and pants could stand in for any band’s rhythm section.

So in a country where electricity can be unreliable, it only makes sense that Indian fun fairs turn to the wallah to keep the good times rolling, as seen in this antique Internet video from four years ago. An Indian fair ride can be a terrifying thing (witness the rusty, squeaking supports), so the impressive acrobatic talents of the Ferris wheel-wallah are all the more admirable – maybe not join-in-the-fun admirable, but certainly regard-from-afar-with nodding-approval admirable.

They say you can reach a meditative state through repetition. Who is to say if that’s the case here, but the white-shirted gentleman certainly appears to be in the zone.

George Orwell’s Birthplace To Become Monument To Gandhi

George Orwell’s birthplace in Motihari, Bihar, India, is being turned into a monument and park, but not to the famous English writer. Instead, Art Daily reports, the new park will be dedicated to independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

The ramshackle bungalow where Orwell was born in 1903 has long been the subject of discussion as to what to do with it. The local government said it would fix up the place in 2009 but nothing was done. A statue of George Orwell on the grounds has been damaged.

The move has drawn criticism from many Indians. The Hindustan Times reports that locals want the park dedicated to Orwell, saying it will draw foreign tourists to the area. Bihar is the poorest or second poorest state in India depending on what statistics you focus on.

Orwell, an outspoken socialist, frequently criticized the colonial system of which he was a part. His father was serving in the Indian Civil Service when he was born and Orwell himself served as a policeman in Burma. He later expressed his ambivalence towards British rule in Asia in essays such as “Shooting an Elephant” and the novel “Burmese Days.”

He also had mixed feelings towards Gandhi. He opens his essay “Reflections on Gandhi” with the line, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent. . .” and went on to say Gandhi was ascetic to a fault and that “his medievalist program was obviously not viable in a backward, starving, over-populated country.” On the other hand, Orwell praises his integrity and courage. For a deep thinker like Orwell, there were no easy answers, no quick labels.

What do you think should be done with Orwell’s birthplace? Take the poll!

[Photo courtesy National Union of Journalists]


How To Drive In India (And Not Die)

India‘s vast geography is a canvas for adventure, but such a big country invariably poses transportation difficulties. The solution to long distance travel in India has generally fallen under the purview of the country’s iconic railway network. In spite of delays and crowds, the train is the best way to see India.

Some might notice India’s ever-expanding road network and be tempted to hop behind the wheel. They might have visions of the open road, quaint towns and beautiful countryside, a trip unconstrained by bus or train schedules – a Kerouac experience for the yogic set.

I had similar thoughts before I entered India last year after driving there via Europe and the Middle East. I had seen the video of crazy Indian intersection below, and I naively assumed that type of scene would be rare. Then I spent two months driving from Amritsar to Kolkata covering almost 2,000 miles on back roads, high roads, trunk roads, city roads, mountain roads and paths that should be ashamed to call themselves roads. About 5% of the driving was sublime. The remainder was a grueling mental and physical test – less Kerouac, more “Mad Max.” I loved a lot of things about India, but driving was not one of them.

So my first piece of advice for driving in India: Don’t.

But if you’re the adventurous type, and you’re going to do it anyway, you need to know a couple things to survive that asphalt jungle. I lived to tell the tale, and I pass on this knowledge so that you don’t become one of the 140,000 people that are killed in road accidents in India every year.

With the type of chaos on display in the video below, it might be assumed that there are umpteen rules, unwritten and otherwise, that every driver strictly adheres to. In fact, there are only two:
Rule 1: Don’t Hit Anything.
Rule 2: Don’t Get Hit.

Straightforward, isn’t it? But as the Japanese say, the reverse side also has a reverse side. Beneath these simple precepts lie several conventions that are indeed unwritten, which allow for traffic to function normally. None of these practical guidelines bear any of the hallmarks of normal rules or laws, like standardization, adherence or enforcement. Consider them to be broad suggestions on how to not die on Indian roads.

Rule 1 is important because the last thing you want to do in India is crash into someone. While mob justice is rare, insurance and liability are a huge worry. Follow these four guidelines to ensure you don’t cause a diplomatic incident.

Praxis 1.1: Drivers only see what’s in front of them.
Indian drivers are forward-looking people in one very literal way. Under no circumstances should you assume that anyone will check their mirrors, if they have them. Drivers of cars and transport trucks alike will brake and swerve willy-nilly like a Camaro in a car chase. Anything behind their peripheral vision is not pertinent, and for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist. If you cream someone who swerves into your lane at the last minute, that’s your fault, bucko.

Corollary 1.1.1: All mirrors are vanity mirrors.
Corollary 1.1.2: Whoever is behind, even by an inch, is always at fault in a crash.
Corollary 1.1.3: Don’t assume that vehicles have the same safety features as yours, like mirrors, airbags or working brakes.

Praxis 1.2: Be ready to brake.
On the road in India, remember the Boy Scout motto. Never assume that a gap in front of you will stay clear, or that there won’t be an impromptu cricket match after a blind turn on a mountain road. Be prepared. As I was driving on the four-lane divided highway from Agra to Varanasi, I rounded a long bend to find two extremely drowsy cows blocking both lanes. I hauled the car down from 70 mph to 0 with inches to spare. The cows were unperturbed by my horn and I had to slowly creep forward until a light kiss from my bull bars made them get up and move, like a couple of unimpressed teenagers.

Corollary 1.2.1: Animals are everywhere.
Corollary 1.2.2: You can get 7 years in prison for killing a cow.

Praxis 1.3: Use your horn at all times.
Timid foreigners driving in India are at first reticent to use the horn, which back home is deployed only in extreme cases of grievance or impending danger. Since every minute on the road in India is an extreme case of grievance or impending danger, it’s imperative to use the horn liberally and confidently. In addition to establishing dominance, you’ll learn a horn has many other uses, among them relieving boredom, filling awkward silences, breaking up cricket matches and waking cows.

Corollary 1.3.1: The louder the horn, the more important you are. Bonus if it plays a melody.
Corollary 1.3.2: False flag operations, where tiny hatchbacks use foghorns to part traffic, are not unheard of.

Praxis 1.4: Don’t drive at night.
Driving at night is almost a surefire way to hit someone. Until the sun has been well and truly down for several hours, nobody turns on their lights. Then every driver flips on their high beams, utterly blinding oncoming traffic. Humans and other animals are sadly not luminescent, but pedestrians and cows don’t distinguish between night and day when it comes to walking patterns. Just as pedestrians seem to have little sense of the speed of an oncoming vehicle, they also don’t seem to realize they are virtually invisible at night.

Rule 2 is just as important and subtle in its observance. Remember every parent’s pathetically thin defense when faced with lending their car to their teenager? “We’re not worried about you, honey, we’re worried about other drivers.” Were the kids raised in India, this excuse would hold a lot more water.

Avoiding getting hit is less about following any laws, and more of an art or a craft – an instinct, if you will – for avoiding vehicular tragedy. Fortunately, it’s an instinct that can be developed with experience.

Praxis 2.1: Small vehicles make way for large vehicles (Might Makes Right).
Philosophers and historians agree: when Thrasymachus contended that justice remains the domain of the strongest in “The Republic,” he was auguring modern traffic dynamics on the subcontinent. Drivers these days have adopted this ancient maxim. More practically put, that 10-ton truck is going to merge into your lane whether you like it or not.

One night I was inching forward on a jammed two-lane artery road into Haridwar. Several bus drivers who were sick of waiting in our lane simply turned on their musical horns (C1.3.1) and maneuvered into oncoming traffic, high beams flashing. Traffic coming from the other direction parted like a zipper, some vehicles veering into our lane, displacing smaller cars and motorbikes, others nose-diving into the ditch on the other side and bouncing along on their merry way. Point is: move, unless you want to argue the finer points of justice with ol’ Thrasy in the afterlife.

Corollary 2.1.1: Position yourself next to a smaller vehicle for an escape route.
Corollary 2.1.2: Upon a meeting of vehicles of equivalent size, inch forward until one driver yields.

Praxis 2.2: Signage isn’t relevant.
Speed limit? That’s when your car can’t go any faster. Stop sign? Invisibly located behind a tree. Red light? Shmed light. Don’t get hung up on the details like lane markings or “one-way” streets. These are merely road decorations. If you attempt to stop at a red light when everyone is flying through at 40 mph, things will end poorly.

Corollary 2.2.1: Go with the flow.
Corollary 2.2.2: For every sign restricting the weight of a vehicle there will be a smaller vehicle carrying a load as heavy or heavier than the restricted vehicle.

Praxis 2.3: Chill out.
Indian roads are not the place to freak out on somebody. If you get all road rage-y on someone who cuts you off, you’re going to get bashed up.

Here’s an example of how it can go wrong: I was driving into Agra, and vehicles were five abreast on a two-lane road. A little rickshaw hauling about eight people appeared out of a gap beside me and started to worm in between my car and to the left-front of me. Indignant, I moved slightly forward to cut him off (C2.1.2). He squeezed; I inched. Then he gunned his little motor and plowed through, ripping off my front bumper. He stopped and him and all eight of his passengers stared at me. The moment when my mouth was agape, registering my shock, was all the leeway the driver needed. He gave me a little head waggle as if to say, “No hard feelings,” and then lane-split his way down the road.

Another example: at a tollbooth in the country outside of Kolkata, three young men piled into my car. They wanted a ride into the city. At first I protested: my car, in spite of its appearance, was woefully underpowered and the shocks were gone. They simply smiled and wouldn’t leave. I relented. They turned out to be friendly, and I didn’t have to pay any tolls all the way to Kolkata. Also, one of them gave me a samosa.

Point is, if you stick to any principle you have about driving, you will suffer for it. As with all irritants in India, the solution is to take the long view.

Corollary 2.3.1: Every gap is navigable if your vehicle is small enough.
Corollary 2.3.2: Personal space on the road is as abundant as personal space in a crowded Delhi metro car.
Corollary 2.3.3: An accident in India is going to hurt a lot more people than just the driver.
Corollary 2.3.4: All vehicles are pack animals, designed to be worked until their last gasping breath.

Final Advice
If none of this has put you off from driving in India, then you are certainly cut out for it. It is actually sometimes very much worth it. The scenery off the beaten path, especially in the northern mountains, is unparalleled and difficult to access without your own vehicle or a personal tour guide. The apprehensive might parcel out their fate to a local driver who navigates Indian roads on a daily basis, but the thrill-seekers will see to their journey themselves. Just be aware that if you do tackle India like this, you’ll need a vacation when you get back.

N.B. If you are riding a motorcycle, all bets are off.

[Photo Credits: lead photo Bernard-SD; all others Adam Hodge]