The City of a Thousand Songs
I left the City of Joy for the City of Lights: Benares, the Holy City, nine millennia old. I had heard legends of the corpse fires, the septic River Ganges, but very little of the culture and warmth and energy I found there. The City of Lights is also called the City of Learning, for both Indians and foreigners come to Benares to learn to play the classical Indian instruments—sitar, sarode, tanpura, tabla, harmonium, and their human voice—so that, unlike most of India, every foreigner who lives in the city seems to be there for a reason. The sounds of their rehearsals echo through the alleyways and sing out over the river.
I took an overnight train to Benares from Calcutta. I was glad to be on the top bunk, since my feet always stick out and that way nobody trips over them. Still it was difficult to sleep, as my bed smelled like rotten vegetables, and the chai-wallahs walked up and down the aisles all night shouting for any sleepless business. There was another outlander a few rows down, who was curled hermit-like in a blanket since when I boarded the train, but I met her the next morning.
She was a Greek named Effi, and her friend Jenny, both of them from Thessaloniki, was in a coach a ways down the train; and they were on their way to meet a man named Jacques who was known by two or three degrees to all the Hellenes, it seemed, though neither of the women had met him before. Effi had been living in Goa for a decade. She bought shirts in Thailand and sold them to Indian tourists, and she loved the country and its ways, though the food didn’t agree with her. “I can’t eat spicy food. I just don’t like it,” she said.
We agreed to split a cab on arriving in Benares. On the platform, Effi got a porter by shouting, “Coolie!” and turning to me said, “I love India. Where else could you do this.” We met Jenny a few cars up, and then Jacques, a high-cheeked Asian with his long hair tied up in a ponytail. His father was French-Chinese, his mother one of the Hmong people from Cambodia, and Jacques himself had been raised in Australia, though I think he identified closer with Greece. He usually spent six months in India, mostly in Benares, making jewelry, and then six months in Greece, seeing friends, free camping on Samothrace or in one of the other places frequented by his circles, and selling his stock of jewelry to wealthy tourists from Germany and France.
Some force attracted Jacques to Benares and kept him there. Once we had made it back to the guesthouse where he lived, in an ashram next to he Hanuman Temple on the ghats—and this was no mean feat, because Benares is overcrowded and frenzied as a bee hive, and the alleys around the temple were very confusing, so it took me a few days to get used to finding the place again—once we made it there, Jacques showed us a room in the guesthouse where we could stay, for the Greeks had invited me to keep with them.
Jacques and the Greeks talked of something rotten in the of Hellas, penniless Hellas, its people impoverished by bad governance and poor alliances with the rest of Europe. Effi and Jenny said the only way out was a rebellion to overthrow the government. They talked about the “energy” of the place, a product of its past and its people, and I listened avidly. I supposed I sensed a power, what’s the verb?—lurking, hungering, meditating—a power in old Varanasi, especially at sunset, when the electricity goes dead and the old rites echo down the water and the musicians practice and the smoke of the corpse-fires fill the air. The wind carries sweet melodies and deathly horror both. You feel a cold shift in that weird air at nightfall, a reversion to a primordial era, as if history refused to release this one spot of earth.
This city I speak of can be found on one of the only bends in the Sacred Ganges that generally flows from west to east, and here from north to south. The stone stairways and temples of the ghats line the west bank, each donated by some regime seeking religious legitimacy, like the treasuries at Delphi. A few hotels and the great pink pillars of the water treatment plant poke through the ancient facade, which itself is really only a few hundred years old, the Holy City having been dismantled by the Mughals. Some of these hold great puja ceremonies at dusk, and at two, the Harischandra and Manikarnika Ghats, funeral pyres burn day and night to cremate the bodies of those who would pass into the next life from this place.
Across the river, there is nothing but a barren floodplain of crystalline sand, like jagged glass in the sun, that spans for a mile or more between the river and a line of trees. On a clear day one can see the forest there, and to the north the railroad bridge, and to the south the pontoon one. Thankfully, the monsoon rains fill in this plain when they come in July, and they clean the river and the ghats as only nature can. Last year the monsoon did not come, and all of Uttar Pradesh suffered from the drought. The people of the Gangetic Plain prayed for rain and tended to their old rituals.
Bodies commonly wash up on the eastern shore. Pregnant women, children under ten, Babas, lepers, and those who have been bit by cobras are all too holy or unholy to be burned and are instead tied to rocks and sunk in the river. When the hawser lines rot, the bodies float up, bloated and putrid, and sometimes beach themselves there. Flocks of vultures and packs of wild dogs like jackals wait there to gnaw on the bones. No one lives there, though a few quays and thatch huts mark the eastern bank where the ferries debark Indians set on picnicking amid the Stygian horrors of that hellish, shadeless desolation.
O Charon, pilot me back from here!
Returning to the saner side of the Mother Ganga: just behind the temples there is a network or warren of alleyways, too tight for vehicles and barely wide enough for two lanes of foot traffic, called the galis. This is a fascinating place, resembling an Arab souq or Turk bazaar in the overwhelming multitude of sensations.
Dirty restaurants fry samosas and cook dhosas on hot gas grills, and chai-wallahs heat tea over coal fires. Storefronts sell cigarettes and cookies, pharmaceuticals, pan leaves with narcotic betel nut inside, and incense sticks, with sweets lined up on racks. There are workshops in niches where the craftsmen repair shoes or shirts. Cloth merchants sit on clean white sheets, surrounded by libraries of folded fabric, with wardrobes hanging outside over the alleys. Grocers lounge among their fruits and vegetables on wooden shipping crates, with scales and weights to figure the price. Music stores play their albums and instruments and show Asian girls how to pluck the sitar.
Running along the tops of the wall, the power lines are as incomprehensible in function as the neurons of the human brain. The temple stupas loom over corners, and the alleys ring with puja bells and mantras, and with the life of shuffling crowds. Westerners lounge with books and coffee in the many German Bakeries. Monkeys play on the bannisters and jump from sign to sign overhead, and the Sacred Cows shamble through, eating garbage from the gutter piles. Motorcycles race through the crowds with horns blaring. There is a constant chatter, and the noise of children playing and heated haggling and oil frying, and always from somewhere there is music.
Ah, the markets of the Orient!
When the power is out, and that is as often as not, some turn on chugging generators and others put out candles amid their piles of flowers or fruit. The alleys gleam in this magic, medieval light, and the stars come out in full. Look down the river and it looks as it did a hundred years ago: a few lanterns amid the formless mass of temples and fortresses, and on the banks the flicker of the eternal funeral pyres, for death never slumbers.
The city does nap during the hot afternoon, and resurrects at dusk. On the ghats, kites flutter overhead. Touts deal hand massages, but only to men. They offer a handshake and don’t let go. Vendors sell ferry trips and puri snacks and ghunga boats: palm bowls with roses and daffodils and a candle. Priests set up altars with yellow cloth and scattered petals and ritual equipment, and the crowds find seats up and down the ghat steps. Strings of lights stir overhead, and the ghunga boats float out between the gondolas. The candles flicker off the waves like refracted stars. Song erupts from the south, and the generators rumble to the north. The power is unreliable, the spirit unquenchable.
At seven on Dasaswamedh Ghat, the puja begins, with seven liveried Pujarees performing the ceremony simultaneously, synchronized to music. The seven Pujarees went through all the rituals of the puja, waving censors and hurling petals and oil in all directions, accompanied by much chanting of mantras, beating of drums, ringing of bells, and hammering of plates—a sublime cacophony of life. Aides brought out great oil lamps with curving handles to each of the Pujarees, who hefted these in blessings to the four directions. The crowd clapped and prayed and stared and photographed.
It is nothing like the rites of the rest of India, and not ancient at all. Fifteen years ago, two hotels convened to try and give tourists some reason to take boat tours at night and not just at sunrise, resulting in this extravagant puja. Yet Hindus took to it as much as foreigners, and the righteous compete for the honor of tugging on the string of one of the many bells.
On my first night in Benares, after having lunch with the two Greeks, I lingered on the ghats to watch the preparations for the ceremony, and a German girl there whom I had previously met in Kodaikanal. I ran into many people I knew in Varanasi—Sebastian the Swede from Bombay, the Vancouver kids from Kochin, Isabelle and Cecile the Quebecois who cared for me in Vadakanal, Cullum the Irishman who celebrated St. Patrick’s Day there, and his Welsh girl, and once again Morris and Tora, though not till a few days later.
Evi and I got some chai, then went down to the docks when the ritual started with a British Columbian named Jerry and a Finn named Walter from her hostel. “It’s weird,” said Walter, “but after these are over I always think, ‘Why did I go through with all that?’ and before I go I ask myself, ‘Why am I going to this?’ but I still always go. I don’t know why.” I told him, “My friend always called it Phomo: fear of missing out. It’s what makes you go out drinking when you’re tired from an all night train, and go to a monument even if you don’t want to see it, and go to religious events even if they don’t mean anything to you. Fear of missing out.” The Finn thought this a perfect diagnosis for his condition.
This night was especially auspicious for me: exactly seven weeks had passed since I met the fortune-teller Rabi Kumar in Hampi and received my blessed mantra. At the end of seven weeks, the fortune-teller said, I was to throw the charm into a holy river, and what holier river is there than Mother Ganga? As the puja commenced, I cut the string necklace from my neck and wrapped it around the metal capsule of the mantra, and from down on the docks I threw it into the black water, where it splashed amid the gondolas and the candles of the ghunga boats and was gone. Now I could leave India.
Jacques served us breakfast the next morning, of curd, dried rice, peanuts, and a few kinds of fruits, with honey and tahini from abroad. The Greeks delighted over it.
“It’s good to eat simply,” said Effi. “Organic food is better for you, and you get more full from it. The fruit is so good, so fresh. It’s always better to eat the food that grows in your area. If you are in India, you don’t need stuff from the north. If you are in Greece you should not buy mangoes or whatever. Buy local things, not from South America.”
“Except coffee,” I slyly added, knowing well the Hellenic, or really Mediterranean, addiction to caffeine.
“Yes,” the Greek conceded with a laugh, “except coffee. I could not live without coffee.”
That day was very hot, so I lingered in the room reading or went out to the wide terrace, which looked north and south all along ghats and Ganges. Around four we went back to the Dasaswamedh Ghat and wandered around separately, taking in the different pujas, one on each ghat. I sat with Jenny for a while and she told me about herself: of her marketing career, which managed to be both brilliant and unrewarding, how she could not decide what to do with her talent—there are things she enjoys, but so unambitious that they make her feel useless—and of her spontaneous and unsatisfying marriage to a Siwan Berber.
Her New Age parents had been very supportive. Hearing that it is an Egyptian custom for the bride’s parents to give a gift to the groom, and vice-versa, they asked, “Well, what does he want?” Jenny told her parents that recently her betrothed had been looking all over for a chainsaw but could not find one, so that would be a nice gift. Her doting parents duly bought one of these and took it with them to Alexandria, where there was a big scuffle over the chainsaw in the luggage claim. Ah, the devotion of parents!
When it was dark, we bought some fruit and vegetables from the Dasaswamedh market stalls and went back to the guesthouse. Jacques had prepared a big meal for us and some other Greek girls, Natasha and Helene. He seems a magnet for the Greeks, his house their consulate. It was a good and simple meal, mushrooms and rice, salad, and even cooked paneer with tomato sauce, similar to the Greek fried cheese. In the words of the Indians, “Same same but different.”
Jenny was an expert in a kind of massage, and she offered to give us all one after dinner. When I received mine, I lay down on the bamboo mats away from the others and told her, “I’m going to be paying attention, I’d like some good massage tips,” but Jenny was silent. This was a different kind of massage.
Now Jenny was carrying around in her bag a number of Tibetan cast bronze bowls of different sizes that produce different pitches when struck. The night before I had seen her and Effi use them in some weird ritual out on the terrace, which involved incense and flower petals and a lot of waving things around while chanting, and Jenny also used them for her massage.
“Everything in the universe vibrates,” she said, laying out the bowls on the ground,—“even though we might not understand it. These vibrate at a high tone, and it shakes all the cells inside you. It is massage through sound.”
I lay on my stomach while Jenny put the bowls on certain points of my back, legs, and feet and rang them with a baton, sometimes one at a time and sometimes with two or three of different sizes, delivering a relaxing resonance to my cells. She listened carefully to the sound produced, putting her ear inside the upturned bowl. A dull or deadened sound marked a damaged equilibrium. Over my feet the ringing bowl stopped as if stilled by a hand. “I’m not surprised,” said Jenny, who had been fussing over my feet earlier, as they had a few open sores and I didn’t have any shoes. After I had moved to my back she noticed a difference between the left and right sides of my body, the right being dominant, but by then I had already fallen asleep.
I woke a while later and went over to the group very sheepishly. Natasha said, “What happened? What did you do to him? His face is different. You look so cool now.” I felt relaxed, but probably for the nap and the fruit. I ate more and watched as Natasha ran her hand slowly up and down Jacques’ chest, a few centimeters from the skin. He said it was warm, with his monkish politeness, and the Greek noticed some problem, which Jacques attributed to an accident, very mysteriously, in which his lung had collapsed. Eventually he pressed his palms together to stop the healing and said, “I am too tired for it.” It was very late.
The next day was as hot as the first, but I wanted to see the city. I left the guesthouse and jumped over the cows crammed into the alleyway.
A small herd of Sacred Cow commonly parked itself out there, at night and during the day’s hottest hours. I sometimes avoided them by coming up the stairs from the ghats, or went around the other side of the building, through a pack of stray dogs I had befriended; but otherwise I had to shuffle, charge, or leap past the tightly nestled cows, as they swung horned heads about with a curiosity that would arrest my passage and knock me down. They had more power than they realized and commonly bowled people over. Jacques still suffered a back ache from when a cow had kicked him.
The beasts were even more of a burden in the narrow crowded market warren of the galis. They stopped for no one. Families scrambled out of their way, and children climbed up onto porches to avoid them. Sometimes one thing or another would set the cows off, and one or more would come charging down the gali. I myself was nearly kicked by a bucking calf, and once I saw a cow nearly miss an old woman as she padded across the lane, apparently oblivious to the bovine threat. I have heard stories of cows charging into the merchant stalls and devastating the lists. During such rampage, most people dive into stalls and shove against the wall. There is nothing to do but watch the cattle stampede about until they have exhausted their fearful energy, and then to clean up the mess.
A much more constant reminder of the bovine presence were the cow pies in every corner. Everything about the cow is holy to the Hindu, including its excrement. Stepping in a moist pie with the left foot is considered very good luck. The most devout Hindus will touch the backside of a cow as they pass, and the Brahmins have been known to make holy ash from burning the product and to wipe it across their walls and look for runes in the way of asylum inmates. Innocent to all their significance, the cows wandered around the galis of Benares, snacking on garbage, defecating where they would, and having a good time of it.
Anyway, I got some masala dhosas from a dingy restaurant we had found that made them with apple slices, raisins, and nuts—very delicious! I was wracked by indecision: having exactly two weeks left on my Indian visa, I could not decide what to do. I wanted to see the Himalayas and Tibetan temples of Sikkim, and to cross the chicken neck around Bangladesh to go to the jungles of Assam, and both these sounded very romantic; but in two days the Sangeet Samaroh would begin, a famous festival of Hindu classical music in Sankat Mochan Temple of Varanasi, one of the greatest cities of music in the world. The festival would highlight all the masters of India.
I thought, “I will come back to Calcutta and see all that and more, but this may be my only chance to see such a music festival!” And so I would leave India, having spent three months there, without seeing the Taj Mahal or the Himalayas, but condemn me not!
Travel is full of such decisions as I made in Benares. Often you must prioritize a few days in a city like Paris, or must chose a route through a country with things to see and do all over. You can’t see it all, and that’s difficult to accept. Moreover, anywhere you go, at any time, you will see or do something that made the trip worth it, so it’s important not to worry too much and to just enjoy wherever you happen to be.
One of Jacques’ friends in Benares was a Bolivian musician named Martin, friendly and talkative, tall and lanky, with curly hair and hard-edged Andean features. They had been brushing elbows in the galis for a long time as members of the city’s foreign crowd, but did not finally meet until the highways of Pakistan, where they both happened to be hitchhiking. Martin was in the Muslim lands learning, playing, and listening to intoxicating Sufi melodies, though these Indian days he has turned his attention to Indian music, particularly the twanging tanpura and melodic Hindi vocals.
The day before the festival began we met Martin and his friends Nadj and Yogesh—names equally intoxicating, though Nadj was a French girl volunteering there and Yogesh was a string-wearing Brahmin tabla drummer from Benares, full name Yogeshwar—in front of the Haifa Hotel for an excursion into the hills. The three arrived late and tired, as Martin and Yogesh had been jamming and drinking a red tea preferred in Tibet until the exhaustive hour of five in the morning. We broke our fast at the Maya Cafe, on the top floor of an apartment building, in the living room of the resident family that also provided the chefs and servants, and ordered something called kichari.
“It’s very nice,” said Martin with his methodical energy, kissing his fingers before forming them into an okay sign. “You have this in the morning, you are full all day.” It took a long time to arrive, and Martin had no trouble filling the gap with his colorful stories and descriptions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Hindustan. The kichari came in a Jethro-sized glass bowl, full of rice, dhal, and vegetables, and fulfilled its promised role. I had the honor and glory of finishing mine first.
Martin had arranged for a friend’s car to take us the sixty kilometers to the River Lakamiandry for about $12. He had been there about a week ago with two friends. After swimming in the lagoon for a while, a Baba came down from an ashram that was hidden in the hills above and invited them to visit for dinner and stay the night. They had hearty ashram food—“It’s really good, really filling, very natural,” said Martin, making the okay sign with his fingers—and left in the morning, well-rested on cots placed for them in the yard.
The car dropped we six off at a chai shop on the side of the highway, where we had some clay cups of tea, archaically heated by a coal fire in a fireplace made of mud. Very slowly, after much slow conversation, we turned and marched up the rocky Lakamiandry gorge, a barren riverbed surrounded by scanty trees, with only a few stagnant pools left in the rocky plates of the torrent that follows the monsoon; and we followed this gorge to its end, where there wallowed beneath high encircling cliffs a jade-green lagoon. The waterfalls were dry, but we found shade and good rocks to sit on and found the water welcoming cool. We slipped happily into the lagoon, and otherwise chatted, read, smoked, and sang the afternoon away.
We were the only ones there in that isolated spot except a small group of American girls whom we found already relaxed by the pool, but they left after a while, leaving us to our very satisfying company. Martin told many stories, including this one from the Afghanistan-Iran border, possibly the least world’s least touristy border, and the furthest from Western culture and its greatest culinary blessings:
“I was in shop and said, ‘What is this?’ They gave me some to try.” Martin pantomimed putting a bit of food in his mouth, and then his face lit up with a revelation. “Cheese!” he cried. “I bought the whole thing,” said Martin, holding his hands out to show that the cheese came in a block a foot wide. “It was very expensive, like, twenty dollars. I had it with me, snacking on it on the bus. Then we got out at the border.”
Martin had a few hash joints with him, and rather than putting them in his bag, which would be searched, he left them on the bus at his seat. “I thought it would be very nice. I would go back on the bus, there is my cheese, my hash. But then the bus left without me! I am, “No, my cheese!” He seemed to feel anew all that ancient rage, and he waved his hands like a superhero villain, eyes raised to heaven in condemnation.
Once in Iran, Martin called the bus company and went all over the place trying to track down his lost cheese, but it was impossible. It may be difficult for you, Reader, with your well-stocked supermarket and well curdled milk, to empathize with poor Martin, but I felt keenly his pain. Cheese is woefully hard to find in Asia! They say that the Laotians still make bread and cheese as the French taught them to, and that the baguette is a prized commodity there, approaching a currency. I am excited to invest in some, although the returns will be minimal to all reckonings but my hungry tastebuds.
Meanwhile, Yogesh called over a dog with some cookies and by making the noise, “Ah, ah, ah,” by which the Indians call dogs. He could be called a very Westernized Hindu, and often criticized the Indians, especially those we saw in their collared shirts who had climbed up to the lake to look at white girls in their swimming suits. However, I could not understand what he intended with the dog. Luring it by the water’s edge, he grabbed it by the hind legs and threw it in with a big splash. The dog scampered out and looked at us pitifully. It was nearly sunset then, and the European girls cooed over the dog and bemoaned its frozen state. Yogesh insisted, though, that the shock of water was good for it.
“I threw him in last time,” said the Brahmin, “and look how healthy he is. Cold water is good for him.”
Yet the Reader will see how foolish we Westerners later looked when we turned another blind eye to Yogesh’s advice.
We did not ascend to the Rama Ashram until near sunset. Martin led us clambering up a rockslide to the flat, dry plateau at the top of the ridge, and then along the path the Baba had shown him that led to the ashram. It crossed the pillars and platforms of the dried up river and went on past a few isolated farmsteads. When it grew dark, we followed the sound of the generator until we reached the mud walls of the ashram compound.
Now when we were down by the lagoon, Jenny had diligently filled up two plastic bags with the trash that surrounds everything worth seeing in India, and she had these with her as we approached. Yogesh told us, apparently uncomfortable with the situation, “You should leave the garbage outside. Do not take it into the ashram.” We replied very rationally that, “No, no, come on, animals will get it.” Of course the monks would appreciate that Jenny had cleaned up the ecosystem, we insisted.
We entered the compound through the small northern gate, and Martin had us wait there like the dwarves at Beorn’s house whilst he and Yogesh met with the hosts. Jenny asked one of the monks at the gate, “I collected this trash around the lake, where can I put it?” The man looked in the bag and cried, “What is this? Why bring this here?” “I collected it from the lake,” replied the Hellene, “to clean it up.” Crieth the monk: “It is garbage! Get out!” Word reached the Baba talking to Martin, they began to argue, Martin using his knowledge of Hindi and Yogesh his knowledge of etiquette, often more useful and more difficult to understand. You see, the monks thought our innocent mistake very rude and wanted us out. “It’s too late for you to be coming here,” they said, “but too late for you to leave.” The sky was dark and the stars out in full.
In the end Yogesh helped smooth things out, and we were accepted, though not so warmly as on Martin’s first visit. The monks arranged six cots and blankets for us in one of the courtyards between the little buildings.
“I told you,” remarked Yogesh, “but you did not listen. I know India. When you go to an ashram, you bring sweets and flowers, not garbage.” Martin said, “We’ll come back next week, with some gifts for Babaji. We’ll bring our instruments and play for the ashram, show some respect. That will get his favor again.”
Having been settled, we washed our hands and went in to see the Babaji, the principle authority of the Rama Ashram in all matters. He was a well-fed old man with a long frosty beard, dressed in yellow and reclining silently on a yellow couch in the temple courtyard. His twinkling eyes observed our approach. A television was turned on and broadcasting dramatizations of some old Hindu epic, Ramayana or Mahabharata. The gurus used to tell those stories aloud, not so long ago.
I was the first to approach the Babaji, and I did not know what to do. As the old autocrat watched me, I performed the namaskar greeting, making a small bow with my palms pressed together in front of my chest. “Namaste,” I said, and I was surprised to see out the corner of my eye Martin and Yogesh prostrate themselves like the subjects of Persia, bowed over their knees with their heads to the floor. Confused, and reluctantly, I did the same. When all of our group was abased in this way, the Babaji considered it merrily and waved us on to the temple, to the shrine of his father or grandfather who had achieved enlightenment and founded the ashram. We paid our respects to this ancestor’s statue, and on emerging received a burfi milk treat, by way of Communion.
We sat down on a strip of carpet on the dirt of the courtyard for dinner with about a dozen monks. They served hearty wheat roti, mixed vegetables, sweet kheer rice pudding, and a very good pickled something—food for men to do work on. After dinner, we threw our palm plates over an ashram wall and left the inner court four our outer one. On the way we passed the Babaji, now lying on a bed and being massaged by three monks, and bent a head his way.
Back at our beds, we sat and talked. “Westerners do not like to do this,” said Martin of our ritual proskynesis,—“They want to hold their heads up always. But it is good to show pranam, respect; to show that some things are greater than us. The Babaji is a wise man. You can feel it. He is like a king here. They all do what he says. Foreigners come and pay him respect, and it makes him happy. I felt good energy from him.”
“Of course he was happy,” said Effi. “If I had three people giving me massage, I would be happy, too.”
At ten the generator went off and all the stars and noises and silences of the mountains could be appreciated in full. One of the monks woke us rudely just after sunrise We received fried dough and puri rice by way of breakfast, prostrated ourselves before the Babaji, and were shown the door.
The festival would begin that night, but the best acts did not start until midnight or so, which gave us plenty of time. We spent another afternoon lounging by the lagoon, adding two long-haired Germans from Stuttgart named Benny and Nina, then took the crowded buses back into Benares, which was dark by the time we arrived. Martin invited us all to his apartment, a cool and quiet place on the ground floor of a building near the Assi Ghat, for tea and music.
“It’s nice to practice,” he said, “but it’s good to play for other people sometimes.” He and Yogesh actually earned plenty of jobs with their skills. Martin planned on going to Thailand or somewhere in Southeast Asia to chant his melodies around a touristy beach and earn some money, though Jacques later warned him, “They’re not that kind of tourist.”
The tea Martin made was pu-erh, a leaf from Yunnan, and it was the favorite choice of the Tibetans and his Korean girlfriend, a Sinologist translating classic texts into modern Chinese. The Bolivian put a spoonful of this precious stuff into a tiny clay pot and poured in an iota of water, then poured this first blood into three cups and, with a pair of chopsticks, dumped each out onto a little rock, so that it drained off the palette and into a water bottle through a tube. Ceremony complete, he now filled the teapot and immediately emptied it through a filter into a glass pot that he redistributed among eight tea cups. The tea was strong and did not need much steeping.
Then came the music. Turning on a drone machine, which produced a constant harmonic resonance to the same purpose as a metronome, Martin took up a synchronized melody on his tanpura, a sort of fretless lute. This was shaped like a sitar, with a gourd body, a long neck, and four strings that made twanging, meditative noises like bee-ow that added only a little to the static undulations of the drone machine, and was a perfect accompaniment to vocals.
Yogesh set out the two drums of his tabla, each held on the floor with a cloth ring. The smaller teakwood drum is called the dayan (meaning right in Sanskrit) or just tabla drum and makes a sort of snare sound, while the large brass dugga (left) drum makes a deep bass resonance, sometimes sounding like a deep pool of water. Ropes zigzagged from the top to the bottom on each, with a sort of cork clamped down on the middle, which Yogesh adjusted by pounding on it to get the tone right, like guitarists adjust their strings. He put some baby powder on the drums and began to play.
Yogesh said the tabla was one of the most difficult instruments in the world. “Some people practice tabla for decades,” he said, playing his right hand all over the tabla in a gentle rhythm, and pounding the dugga with the bunched up fingertips of his left, “and still they cannot play. I have played twelve years, but do not practice much, only play a little sometimes. They say it requires full mental focus to play, but I still have ninety-five percent of mine. I look around the crowd, think about things—it just comes naturally.” His fingers took off and the percussion got much harder, so I understood why he needed the baby powder.
Martin announced the raga, literally "color" but better translated as “melodic mode.” Most are about the time of day or the season of the year, and changes therein. The raga allows for improvisation between the lines, that they would play, and they set into it. Over tabla and tanpura, Martin sang long, drawn out notes, with sudden, sometimes erratic shifts in pitch, sliding up and down or vibrating back and forth. The style emphasized vocal technique more than tune, was more demanding than soothing. As he sang, he moved with the music—his face contorted and his eyes closed tight and his hand waved about as if casting a charm.
The raga they played, while only loosely defining the song that emerged, did have a writer: an almost mythical Persian named Amir Khusrau. Under the medieval Mughals, the legend goes, Khusrau invented the sitar, sarode, tanpura, and a thousand other instruments; he made the tabla by splitting one drum into two, and wrote a thousand Sufi songs, combining Indian temple music with Middle Eastern melodies, and this is the basis of Indian classical music. Many of the performers at the festival played improvisations of his ragas, the singers especially.
Classical Indian vocalists sing in syllable-notes, the equivalents of the Western do-re-fa-so-me-la-te-do. Each syllable-note means something and must be interpreted by the audience. One famous raga, often played at this time of year, is about the changing of the seasons, and the notes represent colors, like the colors provided on a painter’s palette. Only a real artist can apply them in the right way.
“It starts,” said Martin, as we waited for breakfast in Maya Cafe one of the mornings after the festival, “with black and blue. Seh—seh—seh—,” he bellowed, “then the morning comes. The sky changes to blue. It is the same, but different. Seh—seh—,” (dragging it out longer) “then the sun comes, red, Rah—rah—rah—!” and he waved his hand as if painting the sky and threw his fingers forward like the sun's rays, and suddenly I saw the deft purpose to his movements, which I had noted too in all the performers: not the erratic forms of some melodic ecstasy, but the language of the story he was telling through noise. There were no lyrics to read, only sounds and rhythms and the motions and expressions of the performer.
Vivaldi might shake his head, but this is something different.
The first night of the festival coincided with the first hours of Easter, which happened to bless both the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity on the same day, and which the Greeks realized after we had returned to our guesthouse from Martin’s performance. “Happy Easter!” they cried, hugging each other and me in an effusion of national spirit. For the Orthodox Greeks, Easter is a time of going to Church for a hasty blessing, and then turning off to other pursuits: feasts of pig and lamb, family reunions, egg fights. “Please,” begs the priest of his congregation as he nears the end of the first round of prayers,—“Please stay for the whole service,” but nobody listens—food and fine company await!
A few days later at dinner with Jacques and the Germans Benny and Nina, they explained the rules to this egg fight. Rather than hiding their hard-boiled and crimsoned eggs, the Greeks take them in hand and hit them together. Pointed top hits pointed top, convex bottom the same, and whichever combatant’s egg does not break, he turns to the next challenger and repeats the brawl. Jenny got six hard-boiled eggs from the kitchen and gave one to each of us, and we performed this tradition, moving around in a circle. My egg first quashed Jacques’, then the Saxon ones, and even those of the Greeks, so that it was proclaimed champion and, tenderized by glory and combat, devoured with relish.
Jenny told this story: “My brother was in the military. It is compulsory in Greece. I visited him on Cyprus to spend Easter with him, and my mother sent me with all these dyed eggs. My brother had a degree, so he was an officer in the military. He and all the other officers had on their full dress uniforms, looking very smart and clean, and they took all the eggs—only my mother had not boiled them properly, so when they hit the eggs they exploded. The eggs got all over their uniforms, their only ones. They smelled like rotten eggs all through the service.”
But on that night after returning from the lagoon, even as Effi and Jenny spoke excitedly of these customs and more, they were too tired to consider a trip to the festival, which I was eager to make. Departing from the guesthouse around one, alone into the Stygian depths of benighted alleyways, I hired a bicycle rickshaw to take me to the Sankat Mochan Temple, a few kilometers away. It was a temple to Hanuman, the ebullient monkey god, and one of the oldest and holiest in Benares. That night, the music that had been going since six that night and would go on until six that morning could be heard from a mile away: the watery percussion of the tabla.
Having run the gauntlet of the security details out front, I followed a covered arcade into the temple. The marble floors were scarcely visible, being covered by a horde of Hindu men, most of them sprawled supine across it, asleep or halfway there. They slept between the columns and in the open courtyard at the center and on the platforms around the shrines. At one end of the temple there was a raised dais, as in where a medieval king would sit at the feast, where the performers, also sitting on the floor but higher than everyone else, plucked expertly at their instruments, producing a wonderful, improvised sound. Next to them there was a roped off area for the VIPs. The Mochan family that owned the temple sat there, as did some of the other classical grandmasters, and some foreigners and agents of the press.
I noticed Martin and Nadj between one of the columns, eyes drooping, and went to sit with them. Martin told me that the tabla player on the stage with the bowl haircut was one of a famous Benares musician clan whose father had just died, and he played in the rapid, frenetic Benares style, jolting and shaking to the beat. (I’m afraid that the program was written in Hindi, the names hard to discern from others, so only a few are presented, and only a few of those are spelled accurately. Ah well! most of the names of pharaohs and Arab kings and Chinese emperors are the same phonetic garbles, so I can’t feel so bad, amid this company of eminent and error-prone historians.)
The tabla player and his band finished their performance, which had lasted over an hour, and prayed for blessings. There was a short intermission, and then a sitarist, Rara Krishna, a disciple of Ravi Shankar, and a tabla player named Kumald Kubla took the stage. After Rara Krishna, Martin and Nadj left for home. An old man, venerable and apparently very famous, began to chant some mantras, with harmonium, tabla, and two tanpuras, and I slept for an hour. At 4:30 and again at 6 they shouted out to Hanuman for the early morning pujas, and I left after the second of these.
The banks of the Ganges in Benares is the holiest place for a Hindu to die, allowing liberation from moksha, the dharmic cycle of rebirth, and good Hindus must be burned within a day of their passing. Thus, the fires on the ghats consume 210 corpses daily. The details of the funeral rites are fascinating, and the business. It costs at least 1200 rupees, or $24, for a pyre. For 500 rupees, poor men are often burned in the Harischandra Ghat, close to my guesthouse, that has in addition to its fires two electric furnaces that can reduce a man to carbon in twenty-five minutes, the length of a fair nap. But the well off will be burned at Manikarnika.
Usually friends and family came to see it done, all of them men, though sometimes the Untouchables who work in the cremation grounds handle the ceremonies involved. The devoted help to carry the wood from the great piles down to the cremation grounds and bear the body to its last bed there. It comes down the steps on a litter, cloaked in colored cloth. Orange or red marks a young girl, blue a boy, and gray an old man.
The closest living relative, a brother or father, takes the body into the river for a last bath, and then they all place it on the piled pyre and sprinkle it with gee and sugar and cover it with more wood. The wealthy can afford to be sprinkled with sandalwood powder as well. Then someone lights a fan of special grass in the eternal fire and takes it smoking around the funeral pyre. The smoke will guide the dead spirit beyond the veil. With his smoking grass, he lights the pyre, and they all watch as the wood goes up.
It takes about three hours for a body to burn, but the funeral disperses before then. Those who came will bathe themselves in the Sacred Water before leaving, even in Winter when it is very cold. Most deaths and burnings happen in summer and winter, but it is only in winter that the poor warm themselves by the corpse-fires and steal coals to cook with. By leaving early, the loved ones avoid such sights, and the gruesome process of cremation.
After a half-hour the sheet has burned away and the body is there with blackened skin and a distinctive odor. The feet often stick out the back, and sometimes a stray dog will steal one. After an hour the skull bursts. After two there is only coals and bones and a pile of ash, and after three all that is nearly indistinguishable. With the industry of a death camp, the Untouchable laborers at Manikarnika shovel ashes into the Ganges. Other workers sift through the silt with pans, looking for the gold teeth or jewelry that the dead wear to their cremation. A white suited man hovers nearby in a rowboat to buy any treasure.
A Hindu silk merchant pointed him out to me as we overlooked the ghat from a tower twenty feet above, which the Ganges sometimes covers in the monsoon season. I had taken a ferry there from the Assi Ghat, a required passage for all visitors to Benares, in the early hours of the morning, just after the conclusion of the festival’s first round. It was not yet seven but already too hot to be in the slanting sunlight.
“Women are not allowed here,” said the merchant,—“do you know why? They would cry and throw themselves in the fire. Suttee. See only men down there. Men do not cry.” The silk merchant took me up into another abandoned tower where a squalid crone, surrounded by the rotten instruments of witchcraft, blessed me and the names of all who love me, though I could not make any donations to her cause.
I wandered back through the galis, stopping to see a few places of interest and to eat some dhosa and idli, and then followed the ghats, crowded with Sunday throngs. Men huddled around dice mats, families shared packets of puri, boys flew kites, and children scraped down the concrete slope as if it were a slide. There were the shouts of hawkers, the splashing of bathers, the chugging of generators, and the distant music of a band playing at Dasaswamedh Ghat. I tossed balls back to the cricketers. It was Easter, and I made my way home.
That night Effi and Jenny brought back another Greek girl, Maria, and the long-haired Germans Benny and Nina came, and Jacques and Helene were there, and Martin and Yogesh brought their instruments and a French girl named Vanessa. We all had a good time of it out on the terrace in the warmth of the evening, which made the place feel alive in an upside-down, underworld sort of way. Martin and Yogesh played and Jacques brought out papaya, peanuts, grapes, and bananas.
Just around midnight Maria said she wanted to go home to her guesthouse near the Lalita Ghat; she had just arrived that day to Benares and was really tired, and I offered to guide her. Of course I didn’t know where the place was in the mazy alleyways, but she said it was near the German Bakery and I knew that. We walked the ghats to the Dasaswamedh Ghat, and we crossed the deserted market and entered the northern gali. The alley turned dark, with shadowed porches and portholes suggesting twilight terrors beyond our vision. In the distance a swinging light illuminated a mess of closed shops and a nest of random signs and dangling wires. Two dogs fought over a sandal, and two figures drifted towards us, moving in and out of the shadows.
“This is such a spooky alley,” I remarked. “This is like a Hollywood set of a spooky alley.”
“I’m not going to say anything,” said Maria.
The two figures in that fantastic scene were soldiers—night watchmen!—and we begged directions from them and a few other people in the yet darker alleys. Soon we were stepping lightly over molding trash and dodging stray dogs and other perils, but eventually found the Hotel Puja, and I set out back into the maze, looking for the Lalita Ghat so I might walk back along the river.
“That way and right,” said a Swiss drunkard, pointing the route with a whiskey bottle. The first right went down into a subterranean tunnel. A lamp, twenty yards away, flooded the immediate hallway with light but left all that was beyond an abyssal black square. A gurgling growl emerged from that unknown, but whether it was animal or machine I never knew. I shook my head fearfully and left that passage for the alley.
When I finally found my way out from the warren, I was overlooking the Manikarnika Ghat. The corpse fires and their attendants looked especially sinister and cultish at night. Coming through the infernal smoke, I followed the ghats until I came to the Dasaswamedh Ghat and on an adventurous whim again entered the warren of alleys. Here the galis were much darker and weirder. The silhouettes of beasts sulkily raised their maws from horrid feasts to consider me with eyes that I could not see. They made no sound as I flitted past them in the moonless black.
After many trials of courage, which I cannot help but remember with a tempered glee, I came back to the guesthouse. My friends, however, were nowhere to be found. I went back down and began walking towards Sankat Mochan, dealing tersely with the sly rickshaw-wallahs. Eventually the blackness deepened on the benighted street and shadowy forms emerged before me, six in number, lowered heads growling softly, a heavy prelude to battle, and I had to get past them if I wanted to proceed, and I thought, “This is what I get for walking a girl home. This is the hero’s reward. Alone in the dark with a pack of rabies.”
Hark! the small engine rumbles just behind, the stirring sound of a tuk-tuk, whose headlight illuminates the street and blinds the vicious hounds, who scatter before the little vehicle. To my very rescue came this tuk-tuk. “Namaste,” says the driver, “where you go?” He says, “Fifty rupees,” when I tell him. “Twenty,” say I. The hounds reconvene in the street, and I hear their low growls, wicked as death. The driver goes to forty, and I suggest thirty. “Twenty-five,” he says for some reason. Dogs come closer, no longer fearing the headlights or the gently throbbing engine. “Okay,” I concede, “twenty-five.” The driver looks bemused for a moment, but I get in and we speed off into the night, scattering the beasts with our charge.
Now we come to the rest of the festival’s five nights.
On the second night of the Sangeet Samaroh, I came in late with the others to the temple of the monkey god to see a few singers and instrumentalists. Most were duos. They would come in and sit down, lotus-like as yogis, with a bow to the gods and a prayer and a few words of introduction, and then the instrumentalist would start on sitar or sarode, guided in their improvisations by the “melodic mode” of the raga. For a half hour the instrumentalist would play to set the theme, and then slowly work down to a mere melody, permitting the tabla player to make an entrance. The tabla player finds the raga and splits off it into a frenetic solo, and it’s unbelievable how fast that fingers can hit the drum’s stretched skin. Then two masters play variations on the raga, diving in and out of each others’ themes, always coming back to the main melody, and they jam like that for an hour.
Most notable of the second night, where most musicians came from Benares, was a skilled player of the sarode named Chowduri, accompanied by flute and tabla. The tabla player was the grandson of the grand master: Kishan Maharaj, of whom Martin related the following story:
Once Kishan was to play in Switzerland. They had an auditorium for the performance, with stands and a stage for him to play on. When Maharaj saw the arrangement, he declared, “I will not play to men seated over me. They must all be underneath.” (Nadj asked, “Was it acoustics?” “No,” said Martin, “he was just the master.”) The Swiss removed all the stands from the auditorium and had everyone sit on the floor, with the Maharaj on a dais—the classical setup, like that in the Sankat Mochan Temple.
Now before he died, Maharaj gathered all the other master musicians around his deathbed and said to them, “You must do one thing for me—watch over my grandson!” Some of these masters stood on the side of the temple stage that night, observing their student, and young Maharaj continually looked to them for criticism—the slightest nod, the subtlest frown.
This music festival was serious business, as the Reader will perceive. The grandmasters of India all wanted to perform there. The Mochan priests permitted only those performers who in style and instrument complied to the strict standards of tradition, to the definition of pure classical music, and because of their rigidity barred a number of prominent and accomplished contemporary musicians from the festival for their bold departures from the old ragas of Amir Khusrau. And still only the best could play. There was once a law in place banning all those who made a single mistake for twenty years of future festivals.
As Martin said, “That’s the way they keep their culture.”
On the third night, we arrived in force during the performance of Chamla Mishla, the best singer of the energetic Varanasi style, accompanied by tabla, harmonium, and tanpura. That night I had seen a priest in a strange costume out among the crowd. He wore an orange peaked hat and a long yellow cloak with all sorts of strange charms attached, and with many trinkets and devices around his neck, so that he looked like a wizard. He had a pouch full of ash at his waist and kept smearing it on people’s foreheads. Halfway through Chamla Mishla’s piece, the priest and his disciple walked onto the stage uninvited. The disciple carried a load of flower garlands, which the priest placed around the singer’s neck before giving him an ash mark. The crowd clapped piously, not knowing what else to do. Then the priest blessed the tanpura player, and seemed likely to bless the whole band before an usher ran out to shoo him off the stage. The priest and his disciple sat in a corner and would not be moved.
After the performance, the priest was unceremoniously ejected from the temple. I saw him in the parking lot, shouting at everyone and smearing faces in a malicious way, while the Hindus stood around watching mirthfully.
The other noteworthy act was a local woman named Gamala Shankar who played a mohan veena, a Spanish guitar strung sitar-style with twenty strings that produced a strange twanging noise. She played it across her lap in such a slow and melodic way, more zither than guitar, that reminded me of some avant-garde or post-rock guitar work. There was also Vikku Vinayakram of Chennai, world-famous, who sang in his own distinct, energetic, and vaguely African style and played on a sort of water pot called a ghatam. He performed with his grandson, I think, who also sang and played a small hand drum.
Yet the highlight of the festival, for me and anyone else who was there, came on the fourth night. I arrived around one, as usual, and saw Pandit Vishmanith of Delhi, a fat and bearded singer with a harp, accompanied by a harmonium and two dunpulas. The place was packed. Everyone knew that the last hours of the last nights of the festival, those were the best. My group found a spot in the open courtyard before the stage, wedged in between a hundred Indians, and watched. Then Niladri Kumar took the stage. He was the son of Kartick Kumar of Calcutta, who was a famous disciple of Ravi Shankar, and was himself a doughy and pampered-looking minstrel concealed under what most people would call a mop of black hair. His face was too narrow for his round head, and the loose white shirt he wore could not hide his softness.
Poor Niladri receives such an unflattering description only because he was silent at the moment. When his hands, not pudgy as the rest of him but calloused and fine-tuned masterworks of machined precision; when they reached for the familiar limbs of his long-necked sitar and took gently to the strings, and the minstrel began to play, and when the sounds came out like two sitarists playing at once, he changed entirely. He closed his eyes and swayed as if mad or possessed by the music. Sometimes he grinned, flashing white teeth. Sometimes he looked up as if he saw an angel and played as sweetly, and at other times it seemed from his face that some devil was torturing him and he played with such a fire as only the devil could dance to. Such is the magic of skill and passion.
The sitarist set the raga, and then in the usual way was joined by the percussionist, who happened to be Vijay Gartel of Mumba: big, bearded, red-haired, and resembling a Viking in most every way but attire and subtlety, as he was an excellent tabla player, and by then I had listened to enough to know the difference. Niladri’s playing was almost folksy at times, almost rock and roll, but with the twanging impulses of Indian music blended in perfectly. He kept up a steady tune and at the same time squealed up and down on the strings. He would play quick as Rachmaninoff and then crash his fingers across in a measure of discord. At the conclusion of each cacophonous discourse, sitar player and table player would look at one another like lovers, then set into it again.
At the end, at the climax, Niladri began playing two notes very fast, growing steadily higher and higher on the scale, with the tabla following along, curious, excited as all of us. People clapped at the impressive speed, as they had at many feats that night, but this time Niladri raised a hand to still them. He still had a ways to go. And we tried to follow. A minute went by. Higher and higher he got, playing fast as a fiend, and when he had got as high a pitch as the instrument would allow, he added in a few heavier notes to the two alternating one, cymbals to their tinkling bells, building up the rhythm bit by bit.
We had all been following him raptly, every head in the crowd, and then with a few slides of his hand the sitarist on the stage just slipped away from in front of us and reappeared at every angle at once. His hand stroked up the neck, squealing along the strings like a rock star, and he set back into the impossibly quick theme, jamming a gamut of strings with every other verse—a clashing tumult and a virtuoso finger-picker all at once.
The temple went mad. Hindus jumped up screaming and clapping so you could barely hear the tabla bursting out all the bombast of an urban drum circle, but Niladri rocked with thunder and lightning that no one could take away from him. They cried out to him, “Hara har maha Deva,”—In the name of God, you are good. Some just held their heads, and their mouths hung open as they rocked up and down. To quote an author, “There are people with their hands in their hair, holding in their brains.” All of us, we knew we would remember it as a moment of history, not one of those powerful events shared by nations and announced to the world by some tepid broadcaster, but an intimate sparkle of the eye as we later share the wordless remembrance of Niladri Kumar’s flood tide overdrive.
“Wow,” said Martin, and then he dragged it out into, “W—o—w.” I felt the same way, only I swore.
Other acts followed, but even Pandit Jasaj of Mumbai, who is called India’s greatest singer, could not compete in my mind. Other musicians touched his feet. He was a venerable old man who appeared to have no eyes, only deep brows, and though old he still sang with skill and energy—just not the adrenal kick of Niladri.
On the final night I arrived around 11:30 with Jenny and Helene (Effi had flown back to Goa), and met Martin, Yogesh, Nadj, and Jacques at a chai shop out in front of the temple. Interesting sounds lured us inside: the band included a saxophone, the sound strangely skewed so it sounded Indian, and a woman on a violin. These two played around each other, and from outside it sounded as if the two instruments were one strange one. Why the Mochan priests allowed these foreign devices to elude their moratorium, I cannot say, but the band was Tamil, rather than from the principle musical metropoli of the northern river plains, so maybe that explains it.
Saxophone and violin had as accompaniment a tabla player, a mouth harpist, and a bakhawas drummer, his drum having two sides that he played at the same time. The percussionists sat aside as the violin and saxophone dueled, each challenging the other to a particular set of notes, which was impressive to see by the differences of their instruments. Then the percussionists dueled. At first each performed a solo, and the drummers did admirably. Then the mouth harpist took up his little twanging device, commonly associated as an instrument with harmonica or washboard or perhaps whiskey bottle. The large man started with a few notes that had me wondering if he could produce a solo at all, but then he began to rapidly sling them out, making sounds that I can only compare to the Transformers, and I cannot understand their provenance. It was very impressive.
There was also a beautiful sitarist whom Martin said he would marry. “It’s obvious she wants to marry some foreigner,” said the Bolivian. “If she marries an Indian, no more making music. Just making chapathi.” Then a singer came in, and entirely exhausted, I lay down and slept for a few hours.
When I awoke, two famous brothers were singing, Rajan and Sajan Mishra. They sang the sunrise raga, a raga about gods and the struggle of good and evil. They kept going in and out of the jittery vocal elevations that I had begun to find very annoying, but then something strange happened. The brothers made way for their student and their patron, a wealthy nobleman of Benares, who sat down and began to sing with his famously-trained voice; only he was very bad and kept slipping up, missing notes or screwing up those same vocal elevations that the Mishra brothers had mastered, reminding me how technical was this art of Indian song. On his severest mistakes, he would turn about to his masters, as if to say, “Sorry guruji!”
As for the audience, those pious classical purists, they despised this rich and otherwise unable songster. “They’re very radical people for the music,” said Martin. “Some people that go, go just to wait for mistakes.” They hollered and waved their left hands, a most obscene gesture.
After the noble student had left the stage in shame, Martin went to the back of the temple to spit. He had been chewing some pan leaf, containing tobacco and betel nut, which acted as a minor narcotic. Jacques knew where to find Varanasi’s best pan and had brought some to stay awake. As Martin reached the open door, his mouth full of yellow spit, he saw, occupying the space through which he must pass, lest he dribble pan juice all down his front, none other than brother Sajan and the son of Mochanji, chief priest of the temple—for the Mochan clan own and operate the Sankat Mochan temple, as most Indian temples are owned by a Brahmin family.
“Why did you bring him here?” asked the Mochan prince of the brother, who was suitably cowed, all waving hands and bowing head. “Why? He is inexperienced. He ruins the mood of the performance.” Quoth Sajan, “I’m sorry, Mohanji! He is still learning,” to which the priestly prince replied, “You shouldn’t have brought him.”
But the lanky Bolivian shoved his way past this epic conversation, spat out gouts of yellow pan drool into a flowerbed, and returned by the same way, avoiding the stares of a famous singer and a patron of the art as he went. Martin told of us this when he returned, and reminded us of the old rule: one mistake and thou art barred from the festival for twenty years. Though this Draconian law no longer applies, said Martin of that poor failed student, “He will probably never sing in Benares again.”
Such is the way of the Sangeet Samaroh, and following another duet of the brothers Mishra, so did it end. I now had five days remaining until my visa expired, and not many options.
On our way back that morning, or maybe one of the others, Jacques asked me where I would go next, and I told him to Southeast Asia: Thailand and Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. “Ne, ne, beautiful countries,” said Jacques, using the Greek word for yes, “but Burma is very expensive. I heard the visas are very expensive now.”
“They slapped on a higher visa cost, and you have to pay one-hundred dollars a day, or something like this,” said Jacques. Then, seeing the rickshaw-wallah struggle up a hill, he patted the man on the back and told him, “Bas,” meaning “enough,” and sprang out of the couch gently as a cat. The rickshaw-wallah kept huffing though, apparently wanting to accomplish his goals, so Jacques veered over to walk along my side of the carriage, for I had not been so noble—or was I more noble, for nobles tend to weigh on others? Anyway, my host continued, “Ne, many countries are like this. Burma, Venezuela, other countries in South America. Many have slapped on higher visa costs, especially for USA.”
Eventually the road evened out, and the rickshaw-wallah cried, “Chello!” and Jacques leaped ably back into his seat as if nothing had happened.
Jacques always seemed to belong wherever he was, or to be doing exactly what God or karma intended him to do, whether it was drinking chai on a street corner or sitting on the rail of a balcony, observing the world. He applied a maximum of focus to every bit of jewelry produced and to every conversation, listening to others patiently and delivering wise verdicts and earnest sympathy; and always cool, calm, and collected, and positively Zen.
He told me some good places to go in Thailand, “Very nice, very shanti,” and I wrote them down to remember.
I lingered around another day in Benares, getting over my exhaustion with one night of good sleep in a bed, for the days are so hot that afternoon naps are not sufficient; and I bought a ticket for a train that left the next evening. Before this joyous night of uninterrupted sleep, Jenny, Jacques, Nadj, Martin and I went to a very high-class restaurant called the Crystal Bowl, which Martin had discovered by the recommendation of some local. “I used to hate it in this city,” he said, “but then I found all these great restaurants. Benares is the best city in India for food, I think.”
“And now you will never leave,” said Jacques.
O Annapurna, Indian food is truly great! That goddess of culinary delights was the favorite of Yogesh, though he did not join us at the Crystal Bowl. Martin complained that his Brahmin friend was always coming along on things, and that Martin always had to pay for it. On our trip to Lakamiandry and the Rama Ashram, we had divided all the costs by one less than our number, each sponsoring a fraction of Yogesh. “I can’t buy him dinner,” said the Bolivian.
We had tandoori tikka masala with chicken, tandoori aloo masala, and kaju curry, a specialty made with cashews, plus plenty of naan and roti bread. The masalas were red as blood, just as they should be, the bread freshly cooked, the cashew curry rich and delicious, and we followed that feast with a strange desert that Martin calls the cornerstone of the menu: a stack composed of pineapple slice, brownie, and ice-cream scoop, all laid out in one of those sizzling cast iron plates they normally use to serve chicken and prawns and things, and sizzling like normal, though by miracle of science the ice-cream does not melt, and then they pour chocolate over the top of it which steams and bubbles in the pan.
“Wow, perfect,” said Martin, and he kissed his fingers and formed them into an okay sign.
Jacques and I would both leave the next day—his visa expired just before mine, and he was also going to Bangkok via Calcutta—though on separate trains, and so we said goodbye and see you soon to everyone and each other, since who knows what travel has in store?