Mountains are meant to be quiet
Extracts of draft chapter for book
As we got closer to Varanasi, we saw red brick buildings, it seemed strange to see red brick again. At first glance they looked like ordinary red brick buildings like in the UK, on closer look each individual brick had a pattern carved into it. Some of the buildings were square shaped with turret shaped top walls, like unfinished castles. They were pretty, and reminded me of Morocco.
The palm trees here were tall, thin and spiky; pure Dr Zeus. As we came closer to Varanasi, two yellow butterflies landed on the outside of the window.
The guesthouse had said they would send a rickshaw to meet us. We wondered for a moment how they would find us, before realising we were the only Westerners at the station.
I saw a little exchange take place at a corner, a near miss between a scooter and a bicycle. It was the cyclist’s fault, he had gone out in front of the scooter, causing the scooter to stop sharp. The rider of the scooter looked about fourteen, with a boy of maybe nine or ten standing up at the front of the scooter, the stop made a mild jolt and jerked the younger boy forwards. Both riders stopped, made eye contact, there was a pause; the moped rider gave a head wobble that seemed to serve both as chastisement and to acknowledge acceptance of the cyclist’s apology, and off they all went with no words exchanged.
Our rickshaw driver went as far as he could then parked up and led us on foot through the narrow alleyways where the rickshaw couldn’t go; we had to walk fast to follow him through all the twists and turns, with him only occasionally turning around to check we were still there. I was excited to see monkeys again in the alleyways, up high, jumping from side to side, but there was no time to stop and look.
The guesthouse was painted shiny mustard yellow. The manager said people move to Varanasi, swelling its population; hence all the pollution, because it is believed that if you are living within its boundary when you die you go straight to Nirvana, guaranteed.
He said, ‘The weather is changing all around, because humans have interfered with nature.’ ‘Too many cars, I said. ‘Yes, and too much chopping down of trees, and interfering with mountains.’ ‘Mountains are meant to be quiet,’ he said, ‘They are not for picnics.’
He asked what I liked about India, I said as always, the colour. He said ‘Yes, I watch the news reports for Europe, there is no colour, there are no shining faces. Even the poor have shining faces in India. Even people living on the street smile.’
My husband had his answer, ‘Because in India you feel free.’ ‘Yes,’ the manager said, ‘Even the animals in India are free.’ He and I bemoaned the problem of cows eating plastic. ‘People are lazy,’ he said. ‘When I was a boy, every house had a cow that would come, and you would give it the food waste. Now people put it in plastic bags.’
‘The animals have suffered since plastic came to India. You see, they don’t have hands,’ he said.
At the top of the guesthouse was a roof terrace. The rooftop provided a panoramic view of roof tops and buildings. The view was incredible. So many buildings cram packed; the rooftops different heights, some brick, many grey with age and dust but some colour with faded paint; white, cream, pale blue, pink, red, yellow and blue-green, and the washing hung out.
There were lots of mosques, mainly white.
Out to one side was The Ganga, huge and beautiful, with colourful wooden boats carrying pilgrims and tourists.
And so many monkeys. Effortlessly jumping from building to building. Tiny babies, medium babies, some on their mum, hanging under her tummy, or sitting on her back. The highest building in near vicinity was painted pale pink and dark pink, with a wrought iron decorative balustrade. At the top of the building there was an adult monkey sitting on the top of the wall, looking around, on top of the world.
There were boys and young men on different rooftops, flying kites made out of wood and paper, maroon and purple coloured.
So much detail to take in. I imagined what it would be like to paint a picture of it or do a jigsaw puzzle of it; like those impossible baked bean ones.
We were staying in the old town where narrow alleyways criss crossed and went down to the ghats, the steps at the side of The Ganga. Hole in wall shops sold tobacco, cigarettes, water, toiletries and so on. Stalls sold hippy clothes, scarfs, thin trousers, silk, jewellery and ornaments for the tourists. The stallholders offered as we went past but were not really pushy. We bought loose cotton trousers and tops, feeling more relaxed already.
The narrow alleyways were plagued with bikes, which was annoying, noisy and polluting, and meant you always had to be moving out of the way. I was surprised to see cows up high in raised porch doorways, so funny, filling up the space in front of people’s houses. Dogs were curled up asleep in the alcoves of porches.
People born here seemed happy like the people born in Hampi. When we asked the man from the clothes shop how he was, he answered, ‘Everything is perfect.’ So positive!
We met a sadhu, and went to his house for an astrological reading. How genuine, who knows, but we entered into the spirit of it and of course embraced the bits we liked or rang true. He told me I was a very spiritual person, that I have good intuition, but that I overthink things; he said that I get close, almost to my mission, to enlightenment, and then fall back.
He said, ‘Past is bullshit, Future is bullshit, Mind is bullshit!’
He gave us a blessing as a couple and told us to stay together until death. ‘If he get angry, you be quiet, if she angry, you quiet,’ he said.
We got a little network going, people to chat to, two good food places and a chai stall. A man on the main street with a shop tried to sell us silk, every day we had a good humoured exchange as he tried to persuade us and we came up with different excuses.
We bumped into the man from the banana stall every day. He wore the same red t-shirt every day. One day at a time, it said. He told us he used to be a Brahmin, but because when he was younger he was addicted to heroin he has spoiled that and is no longer a Brahmin, despite being clean for many years.
At the chai stall a man chatted to us and showed us pictures of his two girlfriends, one in Nepal. ‘Do they know about each other?’ I asked. ‘Are you crazy, if you had a boyfriend would you tell Anthony about him?!’ he said to me.
As well as the ceremonies which were held each evening, the ghats and the side of the river were wonderful to walk about. Bells clanged at temple time. Incredible looking sadhus, some naked and covered in ash, sat on high stone platforms beside the river. A man offered to sell us opium. ‘Why not, it’s Sunday?’ he said when we said no thank you.
One evening we bought a selection of delicious homemade Indian sweets from a little shop between our guesthouse and The Ganga. We sat on the steps at the ghats and looked at the river, and the boats.
We watched a dog going from little rowing boat to little rowing boat, three tied up parallel to the shore, the closest, then the next, then the furthest, looking under the seats, in, out, to all then back to the bank. I thought at first they were looking for a place to sleep, but maybe they were looking for food.
A smartly dressed man with a plastic carrier bag came down the steps. He took a big picture in a frame out of the carrier bag and threw the picture in its frame into The Ganga.
In front of us was a red boat, it matched the red scarf Anthony was wearing. ‘We’re a long way from Harleston,’ he said. Yet at the same time, we’re only a visa and a plane ticket away, the same amount of money some people will spend on a sofa and new carpets.
Another man came down with a red bucket and tipped out mushy food for the dogs. He tipped one pile, the dogs all fought over it, he moved along, tipped out another pile, all the dogs went to that one, he tipped another pile, the same thing happened again; before one dog eventually went back to the first pile where there were no other dogs. In spite of the initial squabbling, six dogs all got fed.
‘Hello, Namaste.’ The man called to us. ‘You are a good man.’ I said.
‘I try to be a good man,’ he answered.
On the way back, on the floor of the stone steps were red, orange, and yellow smudges of powder from the ceremonies.
I fed the rest of the sweets to a dog with puppies; I thought I was being kind but behind us we heard lots of angry barking as if I had caused a family argument.
Thank you very much for reading
About the author
Sold house left job decluttered almost everything else. With husband went travelling for a year, mostly in India. Here are my India highlights. Currently in Vietnam. Returning to the UK in two weeks to live on a narrowboat. Writing a book about everything…
For more photographs of the trip see Instagram travelswithanthony