New Zealand Listener Magazine
Words, Photographs and Illustrations by Chris van Ryn
Award Winning Article, Cathay Pacific Media Awards 2009
Outlook Express whirrs sluggishly in my Auckland office. I wait … and wait … and consider an upgrade to my laptop. Nope, too expensive.
* * * * *
Receiving messages: one of five
Subject: I am not get the mobail
Im very said now because I can’t get your mobail ☹
How I can give you the my number because I don’t have the mobail. Actually I don’t have the mobail. Do you understand? When I was receive your parcel after I open ur parcle but in parcal there is not mobail only mobile guide book & charger have in the parcel. ...Halp me.
Praveen is a 14-year-old street kid from Varanasi, the 4,000-year-old religious city flanking the Ganges between Delhi and Kolkata. Swim across the treacly river (pronounced Ganga with two hard “Gs”) at this point and you can go trek in the Himalayas (if your body survives the polluting swim).
Wandering the barely-metre-wide congested alleys with Praveen, a tourist in the guise of a good human being, I’d promised to buy him a mobile phone once I’d returned to Auckland, so he could keep in touch with his father from the village.
It was a serendipitous wonder Praveen and I intersected at all. After four weeks in four hectic Indian cities, wearied by constant haranguing by beggars and hustlers, I was in no mood for another “pick me” kid hustling for a rupee. It had gone like this:
“New Zealand,” I grunt, fiddling with my camera. “Piss off, kid,” I am thinking.
I am standing on the slick, muddied steps of the Assi Ghat, (pronounced “gut”) one of the ceremonial stairs lining the west bank of the river. The ghats fill up at sunrise with colourful devotees seeking spiritual cleansing through immersion, simultaneously carrying out their daily ablutions (a good time and motion study, I reckon).
“Ahh, cricket!” Here we go again. Every time New Zealand is mentioned in India, bloody cricket and Martin Crowe surface.
“Martin Crowe.” He smiles broadly.
“Yeah.” I remain determinedly grumpy. I know little about cricket and care less for it, facilitated by being struck in the back by a cricket ball when I was about Praveen’s age.
I look upriver, towards the half moon shaped line of ghats between Varanasi and the Ganges, avoiding eye contact.
Praveen is still at my shoulder, undeterred. A dead carcass floats past ... maybe a goat ... maybe … a person. “What’s that?” I ask Praveen.
“A body.” He waves his hand dismissively. ”Maybe an offering.”
Varanasi is India’s largest “funeral parlour”. Everyone wants to breathe their last there. The burning ghats are kept busy 24/7. Bodies in white cloth can be seen strapped to the top of an auto rickshaw, wrapped heads lolling around to the rhythm of the pits in the road as they make their way to the river’s edge. Cremation is big business and is becoming a major headache for Indian environmentalists. It requires fuel, and fuel means trees. The richer you are, the better the quality of timber used. 2.4 million children under 5 die every year in India, which I figure is one every 13 seconds. How many trees is that? There is now a shortage of timber as frenetic logging continues relentlessly, not to mention a serious greenhouse contribution.
I was already becoming desensitised to floating bodies in varying stages of decomposition - unfortunate individuals whose life circumstances didn’t warrant a proper cremation: pregnant woman, babies, individuals bitten by snakes or scorpions.
Western tradition surrounding death is so detached. We don’t want to consider it; we avoid it in conversation. Yet we are all confronted with our own mortality, usually when someone close to us dies, and, at this point, we can find ourselves without adequate tools to cope.
Not so in India. Death is very much part of the process of human, earth-bound lives, and mortality is not censored, as in the West.
The Ganges ferries thousands of corpses to spiritual rebirth, helped along by an estimated daily load of 1.5 billion litres of untreated sewage. During the 80s the government released 40,000 flesh-eating turtles into the river in the hope that they would munch heartily on the bodies. However, the unfortunate turtles were forced to face their own mortality, disappearing in a relatively short time to make brief reappearances in the makeshift cooking pots of the multitudinous street dwellers.
The Ganges is an ecological catastrophe.
For the religious, though, the Ganges remains the equivalent of a kind of spiritual bottled water, and, in addition to washing themselves, they happily brush their teeth by dipping and masticating a frayed stick in the brown soup while wandering around the ghats amongst goats and street shavers.
“If you want to go there,” Praveen points to the next ghat, “you got to go this way”. Grinning broadly, he heads up the stairs of the Assi Ghat with me in tow, despite myself.
A pink plastic multi-trunked Ganesh (one of the many Hindu gods) bobs goodbye from the flowing water, refuse from one of the seemingly weekly Hindu ceremonies. At the end of the Ganesh festival, the devoted beat drums and gyrate their thin frames all the way to the water’s edge, where they drown their elephant god, flailing trunks and all. It’s a crowd pleaser, for sure.
Varanasi is a crossword puzzle of tiny alleyways, flanked either side by ancient four-story buildings tilting precariously. Barely a metre wide, these alleys are punctuated by “try and make a rupee” businesses in cave-like dwellings where an individual squats, knees by his ears, loin cloth poked between thighs, beckoning hand out in invitation to buy. During the day only filtered light squeezes through the ancient cracks in the buildings; at night you might as well be underground. Not infrequently a motorbike screams its way down these impossibly narrow walkways, the rider’s and pillion’s knees chafing the sides. An urgent squealing horn means you have a few seconds to scuttle into an opening or risk joining the queue down at the cremation ghat.
The smell of excrement is the overriding sensorial experience in Varanasi. At the top of the shit frequency scale is cow shit, which, on evacuation, is scooped up reverentially by women, moulded into falafel shapes and adhered to a wall for drying. A very close second is the stringy buffalo shit, followed by the small and relatively pleasant (by contrast) goat droppings. Then, a sombre reminder of the overriding poverty that exists in India, despite news of the “economic giant” set to explode onto the world financial markets, comes the human shit smell. The rancid odour is a confronting reminder of the lack of basic infrastructure. People, who often, due to their religion, discreetly cover themselves, are forced to squat on the footpaths.
I glance over my shoulder as I trail behind Praveen. We are being pursued by a withered lemon of a man in a bright orange outfit. Under an even brighter orange turban, silver dreadlocked hair spills out, so long it snakes around our pursuant’s waist like a chastity belt. A large blob of yellow tumeric is smeared between his eyes, offsetting his darkly-tanned skin. A long staff is clasped between hands held in a prayer-like gesture.
“Who’s that?” I ask Praveen.
“Oh. He smiles sheepishly. “A tourist attraction.”
“Looks like a guru or something.”
“People are not always what they look like,” murmurs Praveen. “He wants to bless you, but he is not a spiritual leader, just looking for money.”
My young guide yells something in Hindi, which I gather to mean, “Bugger off!”
As we walked, we talked, and I came to realise Praveen is gifted. Having been deposited at the age of 12 in the bustling city, he is now earning his keep on the ghats - when he is not in school. His story is not unusual. His father, poverty stricken, had left him in Varanasi to fend for himself.
Praveen never asked for a rupee in all the time we spent together. At the end of each day I would fumble in my pocket for a few hundred rupees and he would take whatever I gave him, without looking at it.
Praveen is determined to make something of his life. He recognizes the great difficulties in getting to where he wants to go, but he simply accepts that this is his lot. It made me feel guilty. I often don’t accept my “lot”.
After losing his first job in the city, cleaning the ashram where he lived, he “apprenticed” himself to another boy who sold postcards to tourists. He picked up English from talking to tourists, then taught himself Spanish from a book.
I stare at my screen, thinking about Praveen and Varanasi.
Okay, no mobail, Praveen. Go figure.
Stealing and poverty go hand in hand.
The only thing I’d ever let go of in public, my shoes, were whisked away in no time. I’d made my way to the top of a mountain to a Muslim temple. When I discovered that my perfect pair of trekking shoes, complete with German orthotics, were no longer where I had parked them, I had a very tentative walk back to my abode, my pink bare feet shining like torch lights in a dark night. Advice for future temple visitors from one who has suffered: when you take your shoes off, put one in one location and the other in another, preferably around the corner, out of sight of its mate. Then say a little prayer to the god of the temple, just for good measure. Your shoes just might be there when you get back.
I decided that instead of sending another phone to Praveen, I would send him some money for one. He had set himself up a bank account. He had also set up an email account, which he accesses from one of the many internet cafes in Varanasi.
I hit “reply” to Praveen.
“Don’t worry about the mobile. I will send you some money and you can buy one.”
I was under no illusion that Praveen might choose to spend the money on something else. I didn’t care. I wanted to follow through on my commitment.
Several weeks later I got an email with a happy face.
Hi My friend
How are you?
Thinkyou for halp me ..........................I Receive your money.
I have to study much for good education.But i don't do all education because befor my education i will start same bussness.What much i sepand for education that much money i will sepand for bussness.I like to do bussness for my my life.
Tell him “hi” from me.