“I come as an orphan to you, moist with love.
I come without refuge to you, giver of sacred rest.
I come a fallen man to you, uplifter of all.
I come undone by disease to you, the perfect physician.
I come, my heart dry with thirst, to you, ocean of sweet wine.
Do with me whatever you will.”
~ Jagannatha (Ganga Lahari)
enares – a strange and beautiful city, the most religious city of all, so entrancing, so mysterious. Pierre had often heard of this town, and now he was already treading its soil. Many people had advised him that it’s not a place to linger in. “You will be assailed by the rickshaws, the hoteliers, the merchants…”, said the tourist guides. So he was on his guard that morning, on leaving the station, and was preparing to fight hard with the hawkers and profiteers of all kinds. It was six o’clock in the morning and a beautiful day beckoned.
His anxiety was soon dispelled. Everything seemed strangely calm and serene. There wasn’t here this traditional turmoil of Indian cities, nor the famous dust that envelops every city with a gray and dirty halo. An incredible clarity illumined the landscape. Oh! Of course! One had to endure, as everywhere else in this country, the innumerable calls of the rickshaw drivers, or the greedy shopkeepers. Gazes were as intense as everywhere else in India, students as curious, children as mischievous, cows as nonchalant, dogs wandering everywhere. Everything was so marvelously the same as the rest of India, and yet Benares was not a place like any other.
The rickshaw stopped in the middle of a small square. Pierre stood speechless in front of the spectacle that was offered to his eyes. It seemed that the scenery had shifted into a surreal no-man’s land, a tale of the Arabian Nights. All the sounds and the movements of the street seemed muffled, softened, and blended in a perfect harmony. He was so moved that he forgot for a moment where he was. Such a profundity emerged from this place that it became impersonal, timeless. This place was all the places in the world, at all times, and yet, every gesture, every physical contact, every squeaking of a wheel resonated against the surrounding facades and mingled, and twirled, and rose towards the sky in one gigantic wave, like an Om! India! India! Everything here celebrates your splendor, your contrasts, your universality.
Pierre was trying to imprint these emotions deeply in his heart when his attention was attracted by a wide opening between two buildings, at the end of the square, which seemed to lead nowhere. A dense mist blocked any view and the rays of the rising sun radiated, coming through the white curled mist. The movement of the crowd came and went towards that curtain which must have covered an opening to heaven, or paradise, since the faces of the pilgrims reflected peace and tranquility. Which marvellous secret laid behind this opaque curtain? Suddenly, a famous name that his mind had buried under the emotional shock suddenly reappeared in his memory and answered his question as an illumination: The Ganges!
He went to the river and descended the first steps of the ghat. He was greeted by a tidal wave of life and light, of smells and sounds. Below, the sacred waters moved slowly through the mist and the sun flooded everything. He walked straight ahead, as if hypnotized, asphyxiated. The smell of spices mingled with watery scents invaded the air, and religious songs rose to the sky, punctuated by the ringing of the bells and the pleading of beggars. He walked through a royal road, and a hedge of deformed bodies, with outstretched hands, appeared as he passed. He was soaked with so much life, drunk from so many cries, dazzled by so much light. His senses had been so overwhelmed that he was shaken and began sobbing. An intense happiness ran through his body and he suddenly felt an impulse to fall to the ground to embrace the ground of this temple that so magnificently celebrated the omnipotence of life.
He stopped and sat down for a moment to rest. His face was flushed and the fatigue of the journey began to appear. He was drunk with joy and his light heartedness was without limit. He gently rejected the advances of the merchants and barbers. A boat-owner accosted him and enumerated all the delights and advantages of a trip on the Ganges. A little further on, Indian men were arguing about a bucket of water accidentally spilled on the clothes of a gentleman, who, very much in voice that day, took a cunning pleasure in exercising his vocal cords on the alleged perpetrator. Of course, after a while, the passers-by put their grain of salt in it and everybody were insulting each other good-humouredly. Not forgetting the family who arrived on the scene and the looks of curiosity and interrogation on the father’s and mother’s faces. Then the woman went forward, judging this to be uninteresting and abandoning her husband who wanted to stay a little longer to see how it would end. But since he was abandoned by his wife, he decided nevertheless to continue on his way, dragging his little girl beside his legs and the ageless grandmother, bent under the burden of her long life…
Everything had become calm, and Pierre was gazing at the Ganges, the ghats, the multitude of large, dilapidated umbrellas under which the priests read the sacred texts. Everywhere, people were bathing, purifying their bodies, reciting their prayers, practising their rituals, then washing themselves, cleaning their clothes, rinsing, dressing, shaving, transforming the river into an immense bathroom. Farther on, the crematory pyres waited to devour the dead with their flames, while the dogs searched the warm ashes in search of some food. On the steps, banners of multicolored saris dried in the sun. Everything was beautiful, and especially the sight of the palaces lined up along the ghats, extending beyond the very end of the curve of the river until they disappeared in the mist. The more he looked, the more beautiful it became. His heart expanded and an infinite joy enveloped him. He saw as in a painting and the landscape reached the perfection of the works of the greatest masters. The Ganges, the alignment of the palaces, the old wooden boats, the pilgrims, the colours of the saris, the scene froze and an indescribable emotion took possession of him.
He was suddenly dragged out of his contemplation by the silent arrival of an old man begging. His surprise was so full that his thoughts drowned and sank into an emotional whirlpool that captured him. It seemed that the whole universe produced the sound of a thousand bells. Dazzled by the sun, all he saw of the old beggar was a silhouette and an atrophic hand moving to and fro. His voice had the quality of a deep song from another time. His gesture was both imploring and giving, accusing and salvific. Pierre was in the throes of an intense conflict and could only lower his head, unable to respond sensibly to the situation. A great distress, a great despair, seized him. Already, the silhouette had moved away, leaving him alone with a pain, a suffering, that of others, of himself, of the old man… The suffering of humanity… What could he give? What did he have to give?… Suddenly, he stood up and stretched himself in the sun. It was as if a thick coat of glass slid down his body and collapsed at his feet with a crash. He looked around and seemed to be born again, to be so fully awake to the world that it appeared to him in a new light. Everything had become simple, limpid, childlike. Never in his life had he felt so strong, attentive, human, terrestrial. Everything he saw, heard, touched, exploded with life and luminosity. His mind was totally still, silent, and an impetuous torrent that drowned and quenched all things, all people of its purity, its freshness, sprang from his heart. It was love… it was love…
A handful of scruffy, laughing children struck a ragball with their wooden bats, ran behind, jostled each other, while the dark heavy bodies of two buffaloes came out of the water, shaking themselves, and then began to move heavily. Splattered by their imposing companions, the Indian women were playing and laughing. Close by, an old woman had joined her hands in front of her face and closed her eyes in the radiant sun. The solemnity of her prayer contrasted with the frolics of the young bodies which the wet, transparent saris no longer hid. It was love…
On his way, he met sadhus with superb and smiling faces. The bright orange of their dress highlighted their dark complexion and black beard. They were smoking the shilom and their eyes smiled mischievously. Two ravens disputed the meager pittance belonging to an old, lean dog. On the Ganges, boats crowded with western tourists and photographic equipment were gliding with the current. A large fish made a wave on the smooth surface of the river. It was love…
He passed a string of decrepit huts where the merchants displayed rows of multicolored fruits and vegetables. Farther away, some fat cows shared the fruit of their larceny. Two lepers were playing cards peacefully but had to move away to let through an old rickety and squeaky cart, which men were pushing with difficulty. Sitting in front of her colourful basket, a young woman with a bright smile and fine, amber skin, was selling garlands of flowers. In her arms, her child gurgled unconcerned. It was love…
He sneaked into narrow lanes in search of a hotel. Two dogs had invaded an old empty stall and slept, slumped. A silhouette slipped at the corner. A little girl was selling hot and fragrant tea. He took a cup of it. She lit two incense sticks in front of the portrait of her favorite god. A small hopping bird landed on the table. It pecked a few crumbs, sang at the top of his voice, and disappeared in a rustle of wings. The little girl laughed. He laughed too. It was love…
He stepped into the reception of the hotel. The heavy blades of the ceiling fan beat the air whistling. Two hands joined and a smile welcomed him. “Namaste!” It was love…
Two children with happy faces asked in chorus: “Do you like Benares? Do you like India?” He smiled. It was love…
Text and photos by Alain Joly
(Translated with the generous help of Jenny Beal)
– The French version of this story was published in ‘Les Amoureux de l’Inde’ – Recueil collectif – (Éditions Brumerge)
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