For the past half hour, Lucy and I had been practically chasing after him through tiny streets stuffed with tiny gods and god knows what else. Every since he drank two very strong bhang lassis in the notorious Blue Lassi shop (and if you don’t know what bhang is, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog), he had been flitting ahead of us, his wooly rainbow hat bobbing in and out of sight, like a honeybee with ADHD, sticking its multi-coloured proboscis into every flower that batted its petals in its direction.
It was amusing, to be sure, but it was also late, and the idea of losing anyone in Varanasi at midnight is not a pretty one, especially if they’re high. The old part of the city squirms and wriggles its Alice-through-the-looking-glass-way along the banks of Mother Ganga, in streets that have tendencies rather than directions. Navigating them could send Marco Polo off to find an aspirin. And I was getting tired of variations on the following.
LUCY: “Can you see him?”
LUCY: “Oh, I got him. 4 0’clock.”
DANIEL: “Look at this marble lingam, it’s so…….what’s the word?”
The strange thing was that Daniel was no tourist fresh off the boat. He’d lived in India on and off for years. He worked in an NGO that provides free (or almost free, like 50 cents a visit) healthcare to villagers in Bihar, the poorest state in India. Lucy was a second generation Chinese-Australian beauty who worked as the organization’s project developer. Daniel knew that everyone and his uncle would be trying to sell silk sarees to the big Australian with the woolen rainbow hat, but he was too stoned to care. Perhaps he was tired of fighting it all, and was seeing the whole exercise as some kind of fantastic oriental drama. Lucy and I, on the other hand, were just trying to get him and ourselves back to the hotel, before he spent his life savings on silk sarees, which I doubted he would ever wear.
But Daniel’s attention span wasn’t long enough to actually buy anything. No sooner had he cooed over a 3-inch plastic elephant god, with the owner standing expectantly bag in hand, then he would flit over to another bauble, generally one of the Hindu pantheon. A Shiva with light up flashing halo perhaps? Or maybe sir would be interested in a bedside lamp decorated with the lion-riding Goddess, Durga?
It’s this way!” he called out, channeling someone’s old gym instructor.
“No, Daniel, it’s not.”
“Really? I could have sworn……”
“Daniel. I know you can get us back. But it’s past midnight and the guest house has a 10 o’clock curfew. I think I might know a slightly quicker way.”
(But what I meant was “I know the way to our hotel, though I don’t doubt that you know the way to toy town in the sky.)
“Really? You do?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s this way.” I pointed definitively down a side-street to our right. Keep close, okay?”
“Okay. Okay. You lead the way then. I can buy sarees tomorrow.”
Daniel kept dutifully behind me for about two minutes, and then somehow he was in front again. Being 15 years older than me, and 35 years older than Lucy, I think it was more of an instinct to take charge. And as as long as he didn’t go too far off the mark, we let him go– only intervening when he veered wildly wrong. Everyone in Varanasi, English speaker or not, show you the way to Mother Ganga.
“Ganga?” you’d say. And they would point (except sometimes they pointed in the direction of the restaurant of the same name). If we could reach the ghats then all we had to do was to turn right and we would eventually find our guest house.
After what seemed like hours, we reached the southern edge of Manikarnika Ghat, also known as the ‘Burning Ghat’ where cremation funerals around open pyres are being held 24/7, a dozen or more at any one time. We emerged from the jabbering maze of passages with their tacky gift shop lighting into a sudden quiet of stone temple ruins. In front of us, though we couldn’t see it, was the Ganges river, its presence affirmed by the widening of the claustrophobic streets to the sky. On the flagstone terrace before us, a vegetable cart was silhouetted against a background the colour of battle-weary armory. The temple roofs were outlined with the blunted orange light from the funeral pyres. A large pile of wood was stacked on the other end, certain of its customers.
“Oh my!” said Daniel with a sighing exclamation. “It’s the set of Don Giovanni!”
“Daniel, we need to keep going down, then we can walk back to the guest house along the ghats.”
“Okaaaaay,” he said, unconvincingly. I could sense his proboscis twitching. “But first, let’s have tea!”
I was about to break the news that there wasn’t any tea, but he was gone. Buzzing down the steps in the direction of the pyres.
“You okay?” I asked Lucy.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit tired. Do you think we should follow him?”
“No, let’s just wait here. He’s going in the wrong direction and he knows where we are.”
Daniel was coming back up the steps with a tray holding three tiny clay cups of piping hot tea. Where he had got it remains a mystery. He and Lucy settled down on the wood pyre while he began to tell her about some novel he’d read in the 60s. The persistent sounds of cracking wood and the occasional shout of a dom, the lowest of the low castes who tend the fires and the corpses, smouldered in the thick hot air.
I don’t know when it happened exactly, but at some point I became aware of someone standing in front of me. A man in his mid 50s wrapped in a grey shroud-like shawl. The first thing that got my attention was that one of his eyes was bigger than the other.
“Have you come here before?” he asked.
I glanced down at Daniel and Lucy, sitting a few feet away, as if for reassurance.
“Erm, yes, I have.”
“You see things then.”
I couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement.
“Do you see things?” I asked.
“Yes. All the time.”
The eye that was bigger seemed to get even more so.
“What do you see?”
“Aeroplane falling, building fire, bomb boom boom boom. People dying, dying….”
I looked again at Daniel and Lucy. They hadn’t seemed to notice the visitor. They felt far away, somehow out of reach.
“Where do you see this?”
“In my mind. Then I read same in newspaper. Not easy. Difficult.”
I couldn’t take my gaze off his larger eye that had started whirling like a child’s kaleidoscope. The geometric building blocks of the universe mutating into karmic calamities. People dying, boom boom boom. Wait a minute, I thought. I’d had a normal lassi, right?
“Would you like some tea!” Daniel’s voice broke through that of the visitor like the jingle of a sleigh bell might break a dirge.
I felt mildly relieved that Daniel had noticed him. I had begun to wonder if he was a ghost.
Daniel handed his teacup to the visitor.
“Who are you good man and what do you do?”
“My name is Chanda. I’m an astrologer.”
“Marvelous! Isn’t that marvelous, Lucy?!”
Lucy gave a halfhearted nod. Earlier in the day, as we drove in the taxi from Bodhgaya, she had expressed an interest in getting her fortune read in Varanasi. I wasn’t sure that Daniel had heard her, absorbed in being a backseat driver, occasionally patting the actual driver on the back and telling him things like, “No hurry, little man,” (he was not tall by any stretch, and even with the help of a thick cushion barely made it over the steering wheel).
Chanda–whose name means ‘moon’–agreed to tell Lucy’s fortune but insisted that he couldn’t do it there and that we should all accompany him to his house. At least, that’s what I thought he said. Later, I wasn’t sure. He led us through shadowy back-alleys like a walking shroud. In the opposite direction to the guest house, naturally. After ten minutes, I called out from the rear.
“Are we getting close?”
He came to a sudden halt. “Here it is”, he announced.
We were outside a low wooden door in an area lit by an invisible source of dun-orange gloom. There was no sign of life inside and Chanda didn’t seem in any way interested in going in. Instead, he sat on the doorstep, gestured to Lucy to sit beside him, and asked to see her right palm.
For the second time that evening, I felt that that time was being toyed with. I had thought I was standing right next to them, but when my attention shifted, I found that I was standing about fifty feet away. With a hiccup of panic I scanned for Daniel. He was happily rolling a cigarette on an opposite step. The astrologer’s voice blended with the fugue of incineration sounds that were now significantly louder. The darkness was made even more sombre by air that was thick with large sooty flakes that fell like hot black snow. As I brushed some of it off my tee-shirt, it dawned on me that it was human remains. Where were we exactly? I ventured around a corner. A blast of heat threatened to sear the skin off my esophagus. We were directly behind the burning ghat, only about a hundred feet from where at least fifteen bodies were turning to ash. The stepped alleyway had created a wind tunnel where particles of wood and flesh swirled with smoke in a choking soup.
A man in his early twenties, scruffy jeans, leather jacket and baseball cap was all I could take in.
“Well, no not really. My friend is getting her fortune told…”
“Do you have a camera?”
His baseball cap said ‘Red Bull’.
As I said this I realized he wasn’t asking to use my camera, he wanted to make sure I didn’t have one. No sooner did this thought occur to me than another man, almost identical to him in appearance, emerged from the gloom to my left.
He spoke with the sharp threat of a flick knife.
“This is not a tourist place. It’s private.”
“I know. I’m not a tourist.”
They both looked at me dubiously.
“I mean, of course I am, but I sort of came here by accident.”
“This is private place. Not to come and look.”
It came to me in a flash. They were funeral bouncers.
“No, of course not. I don’t mean to disturb you. My friend is getting an astrology reading you see….”
“You will live to 83!” Chanda’s starry voice ascended all of a sudden into the brooding night.
I did know a little bit about Shiva, actually. My favourite Shiva story is the one about the universal poison. When some minor gods were competing to be the first to make the nectar of immortality, they stirred up the oceans of the world and accidentally created a deadly poison instead, which began killing them all. It was called Halahala “the most vicious and venomous poison in the universe.” No one could survive the noxious fumes and people began dying in droves. Shiva offered to drink the poison and rid the world of this scourge. His wife, Parvarti, unable to bear the thought of him doing so, thrust her hands down his throat to retrieve the poison, but it was too late. Through the combined strength of his compassion and wisdom Shiva managed to survive, though the toxic effect of Halahala turned him blue.
The evening was getting too weird and I was starting to get anxious. I decided to play these characters at their own game.
“When Shiva destroys the world, he swore to Vishnu he would save Kashi.” (I used the ancient name for Varanasi for effect). “Is that why you guys live here?”
They fell silent for a moment.
Then Flick Knife said, “Got a cigarette?”
Daniel was still sitting on the doorstep opposite Chanda and Lucy, legs crossed, head back against the door behind him and cocked slightly to one side, as if he’d died while meditating.
“Daniel, do you have a cigarette?”
His eyes popped open.
“Yes, of course.”
While he and the two young men rolled cigarettes together, they chatted amicably about test cricket and the Australian national team’s recent tour of India. Red Bull and Flick Knife were no longer hired guns for the underworld. Just two ordinary cricket-loving Indian boys. I left them discussing Sachin Tendulkhar’s stellar performance that sealed India’s victory during the series, and whether or not Ricky Ponting was losing his touch.
When it was time to leave (and suddenly it was ‘time’ in that we all assembled and seemed to be ready to head in the same direction at last), Chanda offered some basic directions back to the guest house.
“There are signs also,” was the last thing he said to us, and floated off in the direction of the Burning Ghat.
The thought that it hadn’t been his own house he’d sat outside all that time, was followed by an after-thought that provided incontrovertible proof that the lassi wallah had slipped me enough bhang to get an elephant to dance the moonwalk. It was his house. Chanda didn’t live there any more. In fact, he didn’t live at all in the usual sense of the word. He was like someone imprisoned in a terminal, cursed to see the future but forever stuck in a timeless netherworld.
I don’t remember much after that except for five white puppies skipping out of a pitch black gateway, and disturbing a corpse that sat up from its bed and stared at me accusingly.
I also remember contemplating locking Daniel in his room when we finally made it back to the guest house.