The India Diaries: New Beginnings

…trips do not begin or end, they merely change form” 

~ Robyn Davidson

Last week in India. Every situation I encountered became a microcosm of India in my mind, little snippets of time and absurdity that perfectly encapsulated my experience of the country…


A Varanasi alleyway at night. A cow thrusts her matted black head out of a weathered door, and fills the darkness with a thunderous bellow. A group of men huddled together around a fire are startled out of their conversation. They look over at the cow and point in the direction that the cow’s mate went, a ponderous white bull who was usually at her side. The black cow lumbers off in that direction and the men resume their conversation as if there were nothing odd about that interaction.


Ordering breakfast at a hotel restaurant. As usual, we write our order down on a scrap of paper that has someone’s passport photocopied on one side. Set breakfast with tea. The waiter brings out a tray some time later and says, “You wanted tea?”


“Well, I made you coffee.”


Crossing a busy street. I’m about to slip into sliver of space in the traffic. At the precise moment the gap presents itself, a rickshaw driver pulls into it, spits paan juice at my feet and asks, “tuk-tuk?”.


The local bar around the corner from the hostel. There are never any women in here, aside from us Western girls. It’s dark and smoky; Indian music videos flash brightly on a big screen television. There isn’t a separate bathroom for women, so we all have to share the men’s. At the end of the night, a few of us go into the bathroom together and meet a trio of young Indian guys preening in the mirror. They spend the next fifteen minutes directing us in a series of bathroom mirror selfies.


Sarnath, an important Buddhist site just outside Varanasi. After breakfast one morning, I change my mind about my plans and decide to go back to Varanasi in the afternoon. I had the name of the hostel I wanted to go to, but no address or directions or much of a clue where it was, and I couldn’t find any wifi anywhere. But no matter. There are no time constraints and I’m confident I’ll get there eventually. I vaguely remember that the street name of the hostel starts with a B, so I pick out a B named street on the map and instruct the rickshaw driver to take me there. Rickshaw drivers never seem to use maps or precise directions — they just go to the general area and ask around until they find the place. So I figure that’s what we’ll do.

After a few failed attempts at asking for directions (it’s the wrong B street), the driver sends me into an alley on a wild goose chase and bails. I hit a dead end at the end of the alley, backtrack and return to the main road. It’s a clear day, bright and sunny, and people seem friendlier than usual. I walk down the street slowly, taking in the effervescence of Indian commerce, and enjoying the sun on my face. There is a man standing in front of a souvenir shop who looks like he wants to sell me something. I pre-empt his sales pitch by asking for directions. He brings out a stool for me to sit on, two cups of chai, and lets me use his phone to google the hostel. We chat aimlessly. I finish my chai, he waves over a bicycle rickshaw and sends me on my way. Easy as that.

“Stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course”

~ Tao Te Ching


Travelling through India is like being tempered by fire. I have so much to be grateful to this country for and yet, most days it drove me completely nuts. I’m hardier now, with a better handle on stress, quicker to laugh when things go awry. I appreciate the art of doing nothing, even if I don’t always have the patience for it. I don’t look at my own vulnerability as a weakness any more.

Since I’ve spent so much of my six month journey alone or in a crowd but apart and hanging out in my own head, whenever I get the opportunity to retreat into myself, it feels like coming home — the place I’ve travelling all this time to find.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”

~ T.S. Eliot

The India Diaries: The Art of Dying

Varanasi is the holiest of seven holy Hindu cities in India. It is where Shiva and Parvati stood when time began ticking. When I asked the family with whom I was sharing a sleeper bunk on the train from Amritsar to help me get off at the right stop, the man said, “Banaras? Next stop!” (Varanasi is also called Banaras or Kashi, the city of light). I heard  “bananas“, which proved to be a pretty accurate description.

My first impression of Varanasi was through the window of a rickshaw at night, and my driver was doing his very best not to take me where I wanted to go (seriously, rickshaw drivers of India, you have ONE job!). “Oh no madam, that place is not safe. I know a better place.” Despite my protesting — which was admittedly weak after a long and cramped twenty-five hour train journey — he took me to a different guest house and we got into an argument in a dark and dank alleyway. I quickly gave up trying to impress upon him my abiding desire to get to the guest house I had originally booked into, handed him 100 rupees, and told him to get lost. It took me the better part of two hours to get to my guest house. When I finally did, I was led to my room on the uppermost floor by a man who looked like an Indian Igor. The whole floor was enclosed with black wire fencing and looked like an asylum. I woke to monkeys screaming and rattling the bars of the cage.

Ah, India.


The central focus of the city is the ghats, a series of stairs that lead from the serpentine alleys to the unspeakably polluted Ganges river. This city is where devout Hindus go to die. The purification process — the body is washed and cremated on the steps before being returned to Mother Ganga — is meant to guide the soul into moksha, freedom from the circle of life. It is said that the soul reaches nirvana and is not reborn.

For a city of death, there is an awful lot of new life. In almost every crevice of the tangle of cobbled and shit-streaked alleyways, there are puddles of wriggling puppies. With eyes that have just barely opened, they are already dodging motorbikes and the hooves of cattle. Their mums create beds out of garbage. An otherworldly fog creeps over the river and slithers through the city most nights. Every time I leave the hostel, it feels like the beginning of a horror movie. People huddle around small fires on the edges of the streets. The level of filth is biblical. My clothes and hair smell of camp fire. Every day there are power cuts and the already grim streets are shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from the fires and the ethereal fog.

The funerals are an entirely male affair. Historically, widows were supposed to jump onto the burning pyre after their husbands, but that practice is now outlawed. Also, there is not to be any crying, and, as everyone knows, women are just sentient geysers of tears, and so are entirely excluded from the process.

After the last rites are performed and the body is cleansed, it is wrapped in colourful fabric, placed on a litter and carried through the twisted streets on the shoulders of male family members. Like the ubiquitous honking of horns, the warning that a body is coming through is marked by the rumbling, rhythmic chanting of the pallbearers. The pyre is lit from a central fire that has been burning since Shiva first founded the city.

A group of us from the hostel stood apart and watched, while a man with cloudy, unfocused eyes explained the rites and rituals and then tried to wheedle us out of some rupees. The running scam is to tell tourists that the wood for the pyres costs a lot, and also they need money for the nearby hospice, where people are waiting to die. I’d heard about this one before — apparently the scam artists are heroin addicts — and it’s all bullshit. I looked up some of the information he told us and it was wrong, too.

The pyres are smaller than I expected. Two or three bodies smoulder simultaneously, goats wearing jumpers huddle around the fire for warmth. A baba (holy man) wearing an orange loincloth, with ash in his dreadlocks and on his skin, tinkers with two cobras. He laughs at the foreigners’ fear and charges for photos. An all male crowd loiters; some are bathing in the river, others are on their phones. Not a tear is being shed, and aside from the general backdrop of Indian noise, it’s relatively quiet. But, then again, why should it be sad? Everyone dies, and these are the lucky ones. They’re going home.