The Paradox That Is India (K)

Trip Start Jan 05, 2010
Trip End May 06, 2010

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Where I stayed
Ganga Bank Family Guesthouse

Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

            Confronted, alarmed and cornered.  My mind cries out against this filth, this mass of humanity and the never-ending trail of garbage that surrounds it.  It, them, not us.  Not me, not mine, not my country.  We don't live like this.  Our sewage goes in pipes and it goes away somewhere.  Where? Oh you know, New Jersey, Bear Creek, not anywhere near where I actually live. 

        I am so disgusted by this train.  The latrine is a hole in the floor of the train that you squat over.  You can actually see the ground race by, blurs of the garbage that people throw out the window.  There are no wastebaskets on this train.  Where am I supposed to put my trash? I want my waste to go away.  Where I can't see it.  When I  walk in the street with animals, I don't want to watch their filth become indistinguishable from human filth.  I want to hide in a capsule of UV light and Purell to make me immaculate, sanitized and unaware of the filth that being a living animal inevitably creates.
        My sardonic smile fades.  I am ashamed of my thoughts and feelings. I want them to be hidden too. But you cannot hide in India.  There is no place to go. 
       This place is occupied by one sixth of the worlds population. You have a one in six chance of being born in India.  People have been living here for a very long time.  Civilization as we know it was born very close to here. There is 9000 year old evidence of human settlement in India.  The antiquity of the culture here is palpable.  You can taste it in the dust that fills your lungs.  This place has worshiped the same gods for millenia.  They have never converted or been absorbed by a new religion.  The twenty percent of the population who are not Hindu practice their faith openly within sub-communities.  Religion and prayer suffuse this landscape with an unearthly light that is exotic, intoxicating and at times almost eerie.

              We are in Varanasi - the where city people come to attend India's most prestigious  University, and where people come to die.  It is one of the holiest places in India.  In Varanasi, the Ganges River (called the Ganga by Indians) spreads her enormous banks wide and becomes placid, peaceful and fertile.  The many stone steps leading down the Ganga, known as Ghats, bustle with life, death, prayer and the business of the mundane.

            The Ghats are home to the sewage pipes that lead directly from the maze of dwellings above directly into the river below.  They are also the location of lively, colorful weddings, vendors selling delicious smelling food and a favorite place for men to urinate openly.  This is the place you come to watch ash-covered Sadus (holy men) Oming the sun awake. This is the place to be captivated by the people performing their morning prayers and cleansing by immersing themselves in the holy Ganga, closing their beautiful eyes and pouring her waters over their heads, faces and into their mouths.  This is the place to come to buy postcards from begging street children or to be led to silk factories to be parted from your money either by your awe of the incredible skill and beauty of the craft or by your guide who turns out to be a cut-purse. This is where you can watch the young men hold hands like sweethearts with a naturalness that makes you so sad that men in our culture would never think to do this.

            But most importantly, the Ghats are where you come to bring your dying or deceased to ensure a swift entry into heaven by being burned in a pyre and having their ashes returned to their Mother Ganga.  At the two burning ghats, 200-250 bodies are burned every day.  We were allowed to witness this but not to take photos.  We stood next to the sacred fire which burns 24 hours a day and has been kept alive by grieving families without cease for 2500 years.  Crying is forbidden, as it inhibits the soul from departing.   We watched this holy ritual, the smoke burning our eyes, our throats, our lungs. We could not could not stop staring at the forms of bodies in the fires, the bodies lying next to unlit piles of wood and the living bodies of families watching with that unmistakable human reaction to death - sadness, joy, and the fact of your own mortality - that freeing and horrifying realization.

   Welcome to India!!!  Confronted by everything it means to be human, I gaze around this place with an already familiar mixture of dread and love, revulsion and deep satisfying fascination.  We are staying with a lovely family in their home with a few other travelers from around the world.  We trade music, dance, stories and culture.  We drink the most delicious chai in the universe on the rooftop and venture daily to the Ghats to watch and wonder.  

    Several mornings ago,  I awakened in the pre-dawn darkness to the arresting melodies of the Muslim call to prayer.   Bewitched by the haunting, passionate sounds of devotion we were compelled to rise from our bed and dress for the chill of a morning boat ride to watch the city awaken.  On our way we bought little bowls made from leaves, containing flowers and a candle from the street children as is the custom of creating good Karma for your loved ones (your welcome).  As the sun rose, our little Karma incurring vessels made their way past the people at the rivers edge looking angelic with the golden light of morning on their amber skin and the steam rising from their bodies in the cold air.

   My first life-changing gift from India came sweetly packaged in a shining cloud of music.  How could I have ever doubted my faith in the importance of this universal language? The late morning brought us to the Mother Theresa Hospital with hesitant faces,a travel guitar and a mandolin.  There are volunteers from all over the world working in this facility.  We had met some of them in the guest house and played music together the night before.   The volunteers range from young Japanese college students to retired French, German and Israeli professionals and nurses.  Many of them come every year to this place.  It is a hospital for the mentally ill and handicapped.  Most of the patients have no family and none of them are well enough to live without 24 hour attention from medical staff.

    The mutual affection between the patients and staff was apparent from the first moment we arrived.  The patients with less severe autism could happily interact with the staff.  But some just sat with blank faces and far away eyes.  Some just stared ahead with tears rolling down their faces. I became suddenly shy and apprehensive.  Why did I want to do this?  No one is going to like listening to folk and bluegrass.  They can't even understand what I am saying.  How can I reach a person trapped in such severe sadness or distress?

            We decided to play upbeat, happy music.  From the first song, some patients began smiling and clapping along.  There was one girl who was completely unresponsive as first.  She just stared at me.  Suddenly, it felt like if I could just make her smile, just once, then all of this sadness - the poverty, the starving dogs in the streets, the begging children - would become slightly more bearable.  I played directly to her, trying to beam every ounce of love I have for music out of my eyes and throat.  She came closer.  And closer.  She sat down at my feet and began rocking her head back and forth and smiling with closed eyes.  I wanted to cry.  In that moment every frustration and moment of self-doubt in my musical life became obsolete.  If I never record another album, if nothing else ever happens with my music, it would be okay because I now know the true power of music -any music. From three chord songs to classical masterpieces, music can reach into the depths of your soul and like wind, blow through the cobwebs of shame, fear and confusion.  It can stir ancient feet to movement and make crying eyes crinkle with delight.  On soft wings, music can catch you at the brink of your darkness and float you to yourself even if you are very, very far away.

                We played the longest versions of bluegrass songs in the history of the universe.  Who knew you could re-sing every verse of Wagon Wheel five times and people would still be dancing?  We played until our fingers stiffened on the fret-boards and until my voice became hoarse with a combination of overuse and breathing burning trash and human flesh from the Ghats next door.  Tim played and sang without his usual self-consciousness.  We exchanged wondrous looks as the people formed circles around us and expressed their joy with abandon.

           Second to playing for my student Whitney's funeral, this was the most magical musical experience of my life.  I am so excited to do this again in many different cities in India.  Mother Theresa set up approximately 30 of these facilites around the country and according to the volunteers, every one of these places is as beautiful as this one.  We had tea and chapatis with the Mother Superior who was Mother Theresa's right hand lady.  She gave a beautiful sermon and when she spoke of Mother Theresa her eyes shone with joy and respect.  We left the hospital with more energy than we walked in with and the rest of the day became the color of golden sunlight on bare feet.

     Now picture this.  Two French men teaching two Amercians how to make a Slavakian flute in India.  Who would guess?  But there were our hands, suddenly holding perfect peices of bamboo and hazelnut -  carving, shaping, burning holes, glueing mouthpieces, laquering, wrapping colorful strings.  We worked for hours and were rewarded with beautiful finished instruments by the end of the day.  What luck!

 To top it off,  we got to see Elaynna and Rozzie (two of my guitar students from Ashland).  It was so good to be able to speak english and relate everything we have experienced in India.  We spent two evenings together talking about India's ability to exahust and then replenish, talking about home and what we missed, reveling in the familiarity of eachother and the  surprising headiness of sharing a common culture without the need for explanation.  We talked about the constant realization that every experience is what you make of it.  If you can smile through the heartbreak of  a place like India, the gifts will peek out from behind every dark dirty corner.  If you choose to see only the sadness, you risk the permanent weight of a smothering blanket of cynicism or worse, apathy.

 Welcome to India.  Yes, I think I will take it - filth and all.  

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Lizzy on

Wow, what an amazing experience! It is so incredibly awesome that you had the opportunity to play in the hospital! Thank you for sharing such a moving story. I still have tears in my eyes from the images you painted. I love you both!

Maggie on

What a humbling, awe-inspiring and beautiful report from India. Thank you.

Patty on

The way you describe India is sooo interesting to me. There is an extreme juxtaposition of something very ugly in your words but something very beautiful in your pictures. Your experience there, are these normal things that tourists do when they visit? Does everyone get to have tea with Mother Superior! Or is that only you and The Beatles? Crazy! Be safe.

Julie on

Beautifully said and beautifully written. Thank you sir.

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