Post 7 – Day 2 ‘Varanasi, and a good bread roll’ (Pt 1)

Post 7

The opulence of my overnight accommodation, and the breakfast feast on offer, was wasted on me.

Though I thanked the staff for their enthusiastic courtesy, I was grateful to leave. I had positioned myself warm amongst the luggage on the rear seat of the tour car, allowing my compatriots to avail themselves of the forward seating. It was not that I had purchased a cheap seat in steerage, it was just that the various suitcases permitted a little lay-back comfort, allowed me to hide from the banter with which our driver-come-guide was demonstrating particular and practised skill, and I had reckoned it was the safer ‘road accident avoidance’ option. Sort of like choosing the rear of an aircraft or stipulating a seat in proximity to its emergency escape doors. I had heard about the roadways of India, wisdom and cowardice prevailed, and so I appropriated the steerage seat. Besides, I had previous experience of travelling in the rear of a conveyance. It had made for an often-repeated story that I had bored numerous friends and acquaintances with over the ensuing years. I had found myself in a small plane taking cargo to an outlying airstrip north of Port Moresby. The cargo consisted of pigs and assorted bags and boxes from which I was separated solely by loose canvas webbing and the unwelcome yet all-pervasive smile of an elderly lady who owned few remaining teeth and exhibited a fondness for chewing betel nut and sucking lime; the powdered mineral kind, not the particular species of citrus. We landed with lots of bumping of wheels and hurried down-throttling of the engines. The webbing broke and out tumbled the pigs, all squealing and running amok about the grassy airstrip. I could have made the telling of this aside lengthier, and in fact the episode took some time in the recapture of the pigs, with plenty of laughter from participating children thrown in, but I will bother you no further with the unnecessary diversion.

On this occasion, however, far from the wilds of Papua, the livestock was outside, cattle mostly, quietly appearing then disappearing again within the haze that shrouded the roadway back to the airport. I peered out, not fully connected with my place in all of this. Sometimes I could distinguish thinly-clad labourers, often women, at this cold hour already at the business of constructing or dismembering some building. They were almost ghostlike, weathered and without spare weight, but I could not discern any wraith-like apparitions of Tamerlane’s victims among their number. Maybe these ghosts of history did not like the cold or had not found accommodation within the new-laid planning schemes of the city.

Odd though that I should find myself contemplating the death of strangers when given such a wealth of distractions outside. Thoughts of Kerouac, absent family members, and several other protagonists within my head were interacting unappreciated with the cityscape beyond my window. Maybe it was the thought of those pigs, way back in time in Papua, all I suspect, long dead. One hundred thousand souls. In what hole hereabouts was so much human wreckage accommodated? There is no neatly tended Arlington, testament to America’s war dead, no macabre and labyrinthine Sicilian catacomb ornamented by their sad mummified visage for busloads of contemporary tourists to gape at. Such holes of the dead turn up every now and then in London, these unexpectedly exposed pits home to nameless victims of plague. More famous holes label Katyn and Srebrenitsa with geographic and genetic accuracy. I knew of no ossuary that held remains here.

One hundred thousand souls. How do you suffer the thought of certain death, of destruction? Is there comfort in your shared numbers? Writing soon after the end of the Western Roman Empire the 6th Century CE Christian philosopher Boethius awaited his already determined death by finding solace in discourse with Philosophy. He invented an understanding woman for the role, and he managed to write a whole book about it; ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’. And then with little thought for its prospects of finding a publisher, got up, and walked to an appointment with his executioner. His death wasn’t that swift by all accounts. All along, through those hours, the refuge was only that of his mind. Boethius was alone. Confined to the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita the hero Arjuna sat between the serried ranks of two massed and threatening armies, those of the Pandavas and their opponents, the Kauravas. Comforted by the companionship of his charioteer, who was really Krishna, who was really Vishnu, who was really everyone and everything, Arjuna, his end less certain, and Krishna chatted back and forth. Their ‘question and answer’ dialogue, protracted but presumably held within a motionless otherworld, concerned the prospect of the impending slaughter within which Arjuna would take prominent part, the perceived unfairness of the world, and the illusion of earthly existence. The wise, said Krishna to Arjuna, grieve neither for the living nor the dead, the world is impermanent and thus has no reality; reality lies only in the Eternal. There is neither slayer nor slain. Only the body dies, and it is nothing more than a worn-out set of clothes. However, one must remember, that unlike Boethius, Arjuna was not to die in the epic cataclysm that was to follow. Arjuna’s character is a construct upon a printed page, held somewhere now between myth and belief.

But how does the executioner confront the victim, how does he tear the child from the grasp of its mother? Does he hesitate when confronted by absolute beauty? Does he give the fat and the ugly a second thought? Is there a gender bias when it comes to one’s fortune, when one plays at one’s chances? Among Tamerlane’s hordes there were those who had never lifted a sword to kill anyone, or anything. Maulana Nasiru-d din Umar was apparently one such person, but at Tamerlane’s order Umar, on all accounts a gentle and learned counsellor, dispatched each and every of his hapless captives without hesitation. On that day age, gender and good looks gave no sanctuary. And there was a physical immediacy to the death of the 100,000. They did not die at arm’s length. Great distance was not at hand to lend anonymity to the deed. Though the preceding sentences employ an unintended cruel choice of metaphors, the slayers stood with the slain. In the Bomber Command of World War II pilots nightly bombed the cities of Germany. They did not have to physically contend with the grim results of their efficiency. There was no attendant small-print line in their contracts which dictated that ‘cleaning up’, as an aftermath obligation, was involved. Someone else was assumed to have survived to do that. In his enthusiasm to resurrect the glory of Genghis Khan’s earlier empire, Tamerlane left human carnage, tower-like in its chronicled amassing of body parts, strewn across Central Asia. Like those of Delhi, these too have left no trace. If they were liberated from earthly phenomena, unconcerned with ‘selfness’ and attuned to the absolute nature of a true reality, then they might have gone contentedly to the illusion of their end, offering thanks for their liberation. But I suspect this was not so, the bad karma accruing to their destroyers offering but poor, if any, consolation.

I had drunk too much of New Delhi’s morning haze. I was at the airport in time for my domestic flight check-in. The kind driver in the front seat of my car obligingly woke me up. The haze had followed me.

“Thank you”, I said. I was off to Varanasi. Reportedly, it also had a preoccupation with death. The subject was to revisit me along the way.


Within the airport terminal matters of consequence greeted me. I survived the security scan, being introduced to a level of intimate inspection that would have won a loyal clientele happy to pay for regular and frequent appraisal, in the more libertine areas of Sydney’s nightlife zone. Though the security staff, generally paramilitary in appearance and smartly attired, paraded an impressive range of weaponry, there was an unexpected friendliness to their approach. You could actually get smiles out of them. Sure, somewhat restrained ones, but smiles regardless. I would contact the New South Wales Commissioner of Police on my return, for I could assure him that grumpiness as a tactical habit did not always need accompany members of his constabulary when tasked with the welfare and protection of good citizens. Besides, our fears for the threat of terrorist attack was yet to be realised. These guys had first hand knowledge of it, yet could still be politely accommodating to a stranger. Fortunately I had brought a diary, a new and novel addition to my life, and made suitable notation and reference for the Commissioner’s future information. This initiation to domestic Indian flights also gave me my first experience of international money exchange, 54 rupees on that day, to the Australian dollar. That seemed to me a lot of money. I watched the exchange agent count the coinage with speed and accuracy. His fingers seemed unusually short, wearing no doubt from repetition of the task. He had obviously done this before. I had found apparent wealth, the demons hadn’t stolen it this time, and India was a pretty big bed under which to accumulate anything I happened to buy. My homeland’s currency was on a roll, a disappointment for our export trade but not bad at all for Australians heading overseas. Why waste $AUD 6,000 for a 7 night sweltering lay-over in the Kimberleys of Western Australia. I forgot the exchange rate works both ways, and that apparent wealth was in reality relative, and might disappear just as easily as I recrossed borders, leaving the sleep of India, if you will. Illusions.

At the entrance to the domestic flight terminal I was also greeted by a pleasant little sign that stated and explained the meeting of one word, Namaste, a customary non-contact greeting when friends met or parted. Originating in the Indian subcontinent perhaps as long as 4,000 years ago, in various guises it had spread widely through Asia, surfacing in Japan where it is called Gassho. The word Namaste is derived from the Sanskrit and can be translated as ‘I bow to you’ with the implicit connotation to ‘be well’. The gesture also comes with a non-vocal version, where the palms of the hands are pressed together, the fingers are pointed straight upwards, and the hands, so arranged, are then placed against the chest. The belief being that there is a divine spark within each of us in the heart chakra, a concept featured in several traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism; chakras believed to be centres of the body from which a person can collect energy. Beats going ‘solar’.

You can also complete the hand version with a slight bow of humility, but I had too many visions of obliging geisha ladies and compliant Western vassals, so I tried not to overplay that refinement. The greeting can be used irrespective of gender, age or social status and is roughly equivalent to ‘greetings’ or ‘good day’ in English. Liberally used by many travelling to India the salutation has the nuisance value of obliging every unfortunate Indian passer-by to which it is applied to acknowledge the gesture in like kind. You see it through the occasional smile, weary, as if they would prefer to just see that sign at the airport taken away, and be replaced with a polite note requesting tourists to ignore the locals, and instead just focus on buying stuff. But the polite kindness of the custom wins out every time. Just don’t expect the acknowledging Brahmin to shake your hand as well, and probably best not to pick up the same habit in Japan and unwisely bandy the word Gassho around too freely in an Australian pub.

Namaste was one of four words I mastered during my brief sojourn there. Words two and three were do and ek, respectively Hindi for two and one and particularly useful when ordering food. I never learned any number beyond that for though I was normally a keen patron of ‘thirds’ and ‘fourths’ Indian meals always seemed to end up larger than my eyes. Once though, I placed an order quite confidently as do do, the waiter more intelligent than I, immediately realising that the odd little man from Australia was ordering two servings of something for two, probably for himself, and probably also for the lady at the table by his side. A degree of laughter accompanied his return to the kitchen galley. Much later in my journey I realised that besides not always speaking English, not every Indian speaks Hindi. There are actually a few national languages they get to play with, none of which are necessarily shared beyond geographically-discrete regions. Maybe this is why, when later in Orissa, my attempts at gathering food degenerated into sign language, mainly pointing at someone else’s meal in the hope that their tolerance for chilli was down there with mine. I was in a country of countries, cobbled together by politics, not least of all that of the invading British, and enjoying a broadly shared culture mediated by the hand of Sanskrit.

The final word I eventually learned to wield with skill and sharp intent: Ne. When in a blissful yet uninterested mood, my ‘I’m looking, not buying’ sort of self, I delivered it with the nuance of otherworldly detachment. When less appreciative of unsolicited attention I could intone it in the ‘get out of my face’ mode. It didn’t always work, thus eliciting alternative means of resistance, or escape. But so far it was only Day 2 and my language skills had not progressed to a firm command of my new-found salutation.

You benchmark life by many standards. Some of mine have been known to be rather poorly chosen, but at this early moment in my road trip one occurrence of actual substance manifested itself. No stuff of illusion. Finally in flight, I was presented with our lunch repast. I do not recall the meal that the carnivores among my companions dined upon, but I was offered a salad roll beyond repute, sans dead flesh, its texture, moistness and denseness of construction without fault. Upon the severed halves of its firm body, spread across its colourful filling of a disparate and intricate vegetable nature, was a full-bodied mayonnaise-like dressing that I have not been fortunate to find and savour again. I wasn’t too far from the Himalayas and so supposed the concoction had likely emanated somewhere within its hills, suitably being blessed before shipment south by the caterer. I had been given a small bottle of water by the airline stewardess that claimed a similar origin, its journey from the Himalayas to me initially by way of underground aquifer, so I considered my summation possibly correct. My transgression of the sin of culinary lust notwithstanding, that seemingly humble roll was fated to be the in-flight menu item that was to serve as the measure of all other meals served on domestic flights. Grace and satisfaction in the form of such a simple and small thing. It sure beat the soggy wheat biscuit and cup of pallid coffee I got the last time I flew domestically back at home.

But my Indian carrier only gave me one, and unfortunately the flight from New Delhi, to Varanasi in eastern Uttar Pradesh, took less than an hour, too short a flight for an in-flight movie, though surely of sufficient length for an episode of Time Team or The Simpsons. Instead, I dreamt.


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