Thursday, February 18, 2010

Adventures in India, Veg and Non-Veg

We found an interesting article in the Kolkata Telegraph about urban professionals who've been robbed with snakes. Kolkata is such a teeming, colorful mess of people, food, and the bizarre. After 6 days here, the idea of taxi passengers have snakes thrown at them in the name of Bholebaba no longer seems strange. Bands of totally naked children run to you in the street, tug at your arm, beg for money, and follow you for blocks. Outside Kalighat Temple, someone tried to hand me a pigeon. You need a sort of evasive grace to make it down the street here: beggars and street children emerge from the corners and come directly to you; adults walk up to you with broad, paan-stained smiles, arms out, as if to shake hands. "Hello, sir!" But shaking hands can be the biggest mistake of your day, as these men have iron grips, and won't let go until they're done with their spiel: a desperate fumbling for a personal connection ("Your country USA...Obama!"), a plea to visit their shop ("No charge for looking!").

We started one day checking e-mail at a nearby internet cafe, but had to leave when an electrical fire started in the corner of the room, flushing out the patrons with acrid smoke. Our other plans that day included a subway trip to Kalighat, to visit the temple of Kolkata's patron goddess: the multi-armed, black-skinned destroyer Kali. I was super-excited by this trip, my 10 year-old undergraduate degree in Religion coming back to me in foggy bits. Kolkata--formerly Calcutta--is the ancient resting place of one of the goddess's severed toes, and one of the holiest places in India for offering a goat.

I thought I would be disturbed, but the sacrifice was quick and the animal was neatly beheaded: one moment it was standing quietly in the corner, eating red flowers from another goat's garland necklace; the next moment, it was walked to a guillotine and decapitated by a strong man with a mustache and scimitar. The family who have brought the goat dipped their middle fingers into the pooling blood and dabbed it against their foreheads, like a kind of tikka.

But Julie and I were hungering for a weirder scene, so we went to Varanasi--also called Benares, also called Kashi--the holiest site along the Ganges River, the city of Shiva, destroyer of the universe, where sadhus come to paint themselves in a holy ochre and roam the steps leading to the water. Our guesthouse was several blocks from the burning ghat, where families bring their newly dead to be cremated. We passed by the cremation sites with hoards of other tourists, foreigners and Indians, and our clothes became saturated with the smell of ash. "No photos! No photos!" a well-dressed Indian man barked at every foreign face, sometimes to no avail as pasty white tourists clicked their shutters at the crowds and the embers. A semi-charred leg rolled out of the fire, and the priest tending it would roll it back in.

In spite of round-the-clock burning funeral pyres, narrow streets congested with temperamental cows, and constant pitches for silk, musical instruments, hashish, imported Chinese toys, prayer baskets, and caged birds, Varanasi is an excellent place for hanging out, walking the length of the city by the holy river, watching funeral processions from the inside of a lassi shop, and taking things in: talking to other travelers, to Indians, to shopkeepers, tea sellers, rickshaw drivers, boat rowers, child touts, and guesthouse staff. After weeks here, you can start to understand the bewildering diversity in this country of a billion; how people can describe themselves as Gujurati, Punjabi, Keralan, Kashmiri; Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddist, Jewish; Businessman, Holy Man, Poor Man, Artist, Host, and Friend. In 6 weeks here, we covered over 3,000 miles--most of it by train, usually moving no more than 40 miles per hour. But we feel also that we've barely scratched the surface...but that any more time here might drive us both crazy.


Mark and Juliah

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