I wrote this while traveling in India in 1998, it was fun and therapeutic writing it at the time as I had time to kill while recovering from a stomach bug and had some issues to work out on the motives of street photography.
City of Divine Light
Varanasi, India, Dec 1998
In the thick haze over Varanasi, an exhausted Sun lowered her wiry head. A dim orgy of oranges, reds and yellows slid unnoticed and neglected behind the chaos of the city. As Noah dodged the rickshaw, and tuk tuk traffic to cross the street, the fading sun was the last thing on his mind. A tuk-tuk squeaks out a honk as it narrowly missed him in the middle of the street. He spun to watch it drive off. He was tempted to wave his fist and yell something but soon forgot that it almost ran him over.
It’s hard to describe a tuk-tuk to someone who hasn’t seen one. Otherwise known as a motor-rickshaw, it’s a kind of cross between a Vespa and a sardine can. Tight, cramped, gutless and sometimes smoky. But hey, somehow they sit up to three passengers and will get you where you’re going and cheap.
Noah had gotten almost used to the sight of the constantly honking tuk-tuks by now. Except this one was different. It had the same round miniature look to it and had to dodge cows and crowds like everyone else. But what made him notice this particular tuk-tuk was that it had a body strapped to the roof. Wrapped in a fancy gold embroidered fabric, it’s legs, that were hanging over the back, flew wildly in the air with every bump and twist to the road. God! That would make a wild photo Noah thought to himself.
The vehicle could only drive so far. Even it’s tiny shell was too much to fit down the narrow alleys of old Varanassi. The body was carried further by family members who carefully negotiated the maze of alleys towards the Ganges. A drum played an eerie yet upbeat rhythm alongside. Upbeat enough that one could dance to it, but due to the circumstances it seemed out of place.
In the dark alleys cow shit was everywhere and took on the personality of land mines. Hiding in the shadows, working in conjunction with other piles forcing you away form one and right into the next mountain of warm love. The climate in India can be ideal for sandals but nobody likes cow shit between the toes.
Noah eventually ended up on the banks of mother Ganges.The most sacred river in India and cremation goal of millions of Hindus. An indifferent moon raised his head to face the darkness. Noah was not alone here. He wouldn’t have come to the burning ghats at night by himself. The body from the tuk-tuk was there already for a while. A Scottish girl named Sharon whom he had met at his hotel was with him. And there were others in the shadows and in the fires burning. No he wouldn’t have come here alone. It spooked him. He definitely wouldn’t have smoked a joint here alone either.
The ancient burning ghats at night along the river created a timeless scene. The dirt, the smoke, the primitive smell of burning flesh mixed with the sweet smell of sandalwood. The body had been laid on a stack of burning wood. The gold fabric was almost completely replaced by a warm blanket of fire, which clung tightly to the skin. Soon layer by layer the body returned to ash. The bones required ample encouragement to eventually follow. A local appointed himself tourguide and told them about the ghats. The price of wood; normal wood/sandal wood, how much wood it takes to fully consume an adult male and the cheaper budget alternative of electric cremation further along the river. He also told Noah not to take any photographs, but he could stay as long as he liked. Meanwhile a bell from a temple, lit in the glow from the fires, rang out a hard and steady beat. It’s an easy place to loose touch with reality, fall into a trance set by the ringing and drift away in time. Especially if you’re stoned. There was nothing to pull you back to 1998, to reality. No fancy suits, or designer shirts with text, no electric lights, no cameras, no powerboats in the river. Nothing. The local continued on explaining about the different meanings of the various colors the dead are burned in. How they signify the age and sex of the deceased. But Noah’s attention was elsewhere and he didn’t care for the background info. The desire to preserve this moment was strong in him.
He felt like he was a time traveller. In a time and place where he was definitely a foreigner. He felt very alone in this world.
In a smoky daze Noah looked at Sharon beside him. He wanted so very much for her, at this moment, to hold him and reassure him all was well. A gentle pat on the head would have gone a long way. But how does one go about requesting some mothering. He felt as if his bones had gone brittle on him and he needed to be kept together before they shattered. He didn’t want to sleep with her, not really. He just wanted to be held and had no clue of how to ask for it.
The previous day she was the one who needed to be told everything was O.K. They were in an up-scale sari shop together. A wealthy Indian family was busy spending a small fortune outfitting a wedding party while the two of them in another part of the shop had countless saris
laid out on display. Noah was well into the fabric and marveled at the intricate patterns and bold color combinations. Even trying one on himself just for a laugh. Sharon ended up buying one, which hugged he small body exquisitely, Noah thought. But before she bought it they were talked into sampling some opium in a back room by the shop owner’s son. The young man seemed to take immense pride in selling only the best. He asked Noah repeatedly, “Do you like quality?”. Unlike the sari, which seemed to agree and compliment every aspect of her body, the opium only made her ill. Subsequently and to the horror of the quality merchant and to the amusement of a disoriented Noah, she vomited all over the store.
From an abandoned stone building they watched the fires glow below. The Ganges floating by. The shadows coming alive. People were everywhere. In the darkness of the decaying building old bodies lay sleeping, waiting to die by the Ganges.It is considered good Karma to die by the Ganges. Be burnt there and have your ashes spread over the water. He couldn’t see them all but he knew there were many. Death was everywhere and seemed like an everyday thing. Just another part of daily life and an accepted part of the city’s architecture. In Varanassi death isn’t the end, it’s the beginning of a new and hopefully better life. Healthy souls in worn out suits waiting to move on, in the hopes of getting some new threads.
A week earlier he arrived in Varanassi with a group of friends he’d been traveling with for a couple of months. After a few days in Varanassi they all moved on and Noah stayed on to learn the Tabla, Indian drums. He figured he’d stay for perhaps 3 weeks. At the time 3 weeks seemed like an eternity away. It wasn’t that he had fall madly in love with the city, but for some strange reason he couldn’t picture himself leaving. In a way this spooked him.
Twice, while his friends were still there, they took a boat ride on the Ganges. As the sun rose across the river and bathed the banks in a warm quiet glow, the young travelers crawled out of bed. In a small rowboat they joined the hoards of other tourists drifting alongside the ghats. Several dozen tiny green boats each pressed out of a single leaf and roughly the size of a teacup were also set loose on the river. They were filled with flower petals and a tiny candle that sparkled down the river. On the other side of the boat a dead cow, heavily bloated, scraped alongside. All this time the early morning worshippers gathered along the holy river, welcoming the rising sun and commencing their daily rituals. Women out washing. Naked yogis chanting.
Noah was a photographer, and though of late he had not taken many pictures he stills saw them in his mind’s eye. In Varanassi they were all around him. The streets, the ghats, the river; they’re all filled with action and life. Not to mention the timeless city as a backdrop. In early Hindu scriptures Varanassi or Banaras was referred to as The City of Divine Light. This soft, warm and embarrassing light is still present today. When he would see something, someone unique, different, odd compare to Western standards he was torn between the guilt of missing a shot and the bad taste he got more and more now from going somewhere with his camera that he felt he shouldn’t. It would have been just too easy for him to sit back, relax and enjoy the magic of traveling just for the moment and for all it’s worth. We can sometimes worry so much about preserving a moment that we miss it’s true essence. One eye closed looking through a two dimensional viewfinder lacking depth completely.
The two most intimate and personal times in one’s day; bathing and talking to God, has somehow become an international spectator sport in Varanassi. Long telephoto lenses bring faces in worship full frame. Nothing is left in privacy. The camera becomes a shameless weapon possessing the same offensive power as a pointed gun. And like a game safari spotting lions and tigers, fellow humans are put on display and images are sought after like game trophies to be hung on the wall. Never to be truly understood or fully appreciated.
“ Check out the dude win the funky g-string washing himself , did you get him?”
“Did you catch the Sadhu with the white stripes all over his forehead.”
“My Gosh is that man masturbating under his sheet along the river. No please,no?!”
Noah didn’t take too many shots. He was starting to feel disgusted by his presence there among the floating tourist packs. Not to mention he only had a wide-angle lens with him nothing compared to the others in the boat and deep down he surely was a bit jealous. For in his mind he could see the pictures. In his heart part of him wished he was capturing it all. But it was a bit of his own soul he feared he was loosing with every photo he took. Even the ones he saw other people take. He knew he was just like them and felt responsible for the invasion. Slowly the guilt ate at him.
It wasn’t always like that for Noah. Years back he can recall the taking came much easier. While travelling in Mexico, he wanted to take a picture of a Tiawanan prostitute in the sleaziest brothel he could find. It was in B&W and was intended to be very raw, gritty, and full of life and character. The words dignity, pride, privacy and respect never crossed his mind, yet. And it confused him why it was so much easier for the women to give themselves sexually for ½ hour than allow to be photographed for even more money. He’d even let her keep her clothes on; he thought what’s the big deal. He just didn’t get it. Yet.
The times he really felt it now was when watching other packs of traveller/tourists hoard around some hardworking peasant woman or group of ragged children. Snapping furiously they claim there trophies of the third world and move on as quickly as they came. It seemed so cheap and degrading. He always saw himself in the pack and more and more he wasn’t liking what he saw.
He always tried to be respectful and ask first. But as time went on that didn’t ease his conscience one bit. He felt he was doing it all for the wrong reason. Like he was a disrespectful outsider. More and more he was realizing that as long as he was behind a camera looking through the viewfinder he could never be in the picture. He’d always just be a curious, nosey voyeur trapped in the constraints of the viewfinder.
Noah was never the luckiest cat on the block however in Varanassi his luck seemed to crash altogether and he started to joke to himself if he’d ever get out of Varanassi. At the end of the first week he decided his dark windowless stuffy room could use some incense to spice it up. He placed the stick in a crack on a ledge, which had the remains of incense from previous guest. Before the incense burnt out completely, Noah already had and slipped into a deep dreamy sleep. And as he dreamt away a small burning ember of sandalwood sweetness drifted done and landed on his pillow beside him. What a charming pillow it was. A stained and faded yet still giggly Minnie Mouse on one side. A sly looking Mickey on the other side and under Noah’s head drowning in drool which probably saved his two dimensional 2D life. The pillow smoldered for hours into the night. Slowly the synthetic stuffing burned until Mickey was a widower. It’s unsure whether the pissed off Mickey woke Noah or the heat from the fire but he finally awoke to a dark smoke filled room with a pillow that glowed every time he exhaled. He jumped up and quickly put it out with a bottle of mineral water. He was shaking. The fact that he had no windows was driving him insane enough and now he had this nightmare to deal with.
Over the next couple days he continued with his lessons and desperately trying to get a grasp on his fleeting nerves. He returned one afternoon, tied and weak. Within an hour a boiling fever came upon him while he still had to wrap himself in blankets and his sleeping bag. Circulation left his hands and feet completely and went numb. He started shaking uncontrollably almost to the point of thrashing. His head pounded with a blinding headache. He was convinced there was a party going on inside him and he wasn’t invited , even though it was his house. The music was so loud the speakers were screaming with feedback. In a drunken rage the party goers started moshing to the music; stomping on the floor and bouncing off the walls. Furniture was flying through the air, bottles smashed and the toilet seat ripped off.
“Make the bad people go away”, he mumbled aloud.
The doors needed to be opened and the guest needed to leave. And that’s just what happened next. With a vengeance all the doors seemed to be ripped off there hinges, and the bad people were on there way out. But not without a fight. Noah began to alternate between vomiting and diahrea. Sometimes he couldn’t alternate and just made good use of the tap at the corner of the Asian style squat bathroom to clean the floor in front of him.
Over the next 24hrs he didn’t sleep a wink; making over 70 trips to the bathroom. The vomiting stopped but the shits continued swiftly like a river swelling from monsoons. He had been squatting so much his legs hurt, and he was becoming far to familiar with his once trusted left hand. He got into the habit of sitting backwards over the squat hole so that he had a chance to inspect his waste as it slithered down the trough and towards the hole. Thinking he could figure out what was wrong. Someone needs to publish a travellers color illustrated guide to stool interpretation. Kind of like a how to read tea leaves book or even like a bird watchers guide. It would make a delightful coffee table book.
‘This extremely quick fowl is characterized by it’s blood red speckled green plumage and bubbly personality.’
He didn’t dare estimate how much weight he had lost and was frightened by the constant sight of blood in his shit. Not to mention the smell, a healthy shit doesn’t hum like that he thought.
“ That’s just not right ”, he said to himself aloud. By now he was certain he had earned the right to talk aloud to himself. “That’s wrong”, he concluded as he filled a film canister with a sample that he wanted tested.
“The Mother Ganges is not polluted”, a slightly offended sounding Sadhu corrected him days before. “ She is troubled! ”The holy man wore Rastafarian deadlocks down to his feet which looked so extremely dry and brittle one might think that they’d been flowing as long as the river has. His head was decorated with the phallic symbol of the lignam, indicating the sect he belonged to. He washed and drank directly from the sacred river which has the arduous task of carrying all the human, animal and industrial waste that it accumulates over it’s 2500 km journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.
“Yes, troubled indeed”. Noah felt the same. Lacking the energy to leave the hotel he had a doctor called for. The doctor was quick and arrogant with his diagnosis and ignored Noah’s request to have the contents of his film canister examined. A smorgasbord of drugs were prescribed and the doctor was off.
The following morning he was out to find the pharmacy, 5 minutes away. The directions to the pharmacy seemed simple, “ turn left at the Ganga Fuji restaurant and straight to the main road and it’s on your left.” Straight, Noah thought to himself as the alleyway wound around like a snake forking in all directions. They’ve got a pretty perverse concept of straight he thought to himself. I guess the boys at the cinema last week were considered straight as well. The previous week he went to a Hindi movie with some friends. A Bollywood flick looked like it could be fun and for the most part it was. He got separated from the group he was with before getting in. Unfortunately they had his ticket and before he was kicked out of the theatre he had the misfortune of getting crushed in a mob of young male moviegoers. All pushing against the gate Noah became sandwiched up against it. The young boys jeered at him in
Hindi and as he was squished and unable to move he had his bum aggressively fondled. The crowd completely aware of what was happening roared with laughter and heckled him. It was unsure who was doing it and there was little he could do but try to ignore them. Content on seeing Noah snap someone goosed him swiftly between the legs taking his nervous and somewhat startled testicles into their hand. He tried to swing around but again there was little to do. This was repeated till the gates finally opened ending his horror. “Straight my ass”
Weak, confused and tempted to start crawling he finally found the drug store. The following day he thought the medication was working and he was feeling slightly better. He ventured out to tell his drum teacher, affectionately known as Baba he’d be back in a few days. A tall slim man with long thinning hair and sharp facial features. Baba was always chewing beet root. A filthy addictive habit that discoloured his teeth, forced him to be constantly drooling red juices and talk out of one side of this mouth. But boy could this cat fly on the drums.
”Dha-dha-ter-ket-tak-tha-tha-tu-na”, he’d rap, as his fingers vanished mysterious in a blur above the drums.
Not only was he a brilliant tabla player but he had a heart of gold and seemed genuinely concerned about Noah’s health. “ You have a quick motion, yes?”, he asked about Noah’s symptoms. Motion ,Noah thought, and for a brief second he was confused before he realized Baba spoke of the shits. “ It’s loco motion down there my friend, crazy shit I tell you”, he responded. They laughed and he made his way back to the Golden Lodge.
As he walked he felt fragile and awkward in his body. It was like clothes that didn’t fit properly. A sweater shrunk in the dryer, or a shirt that was made by a blind drunk tailor. Too tight in some places and so loose in others you could trip on it. Along the way, one of Varanassi’s many street cows took an out of character charge at him and hit him with his head. Dazed and distraught he headed on only to get knocked by a cycle rickshaw into a crowd of people minutes later. Just before arriving back to the relative safety of his room he was aggressively stopped by a shop owner.
” Silk, incense, change money, hash, opium cookies, supperdooper marijuana? “ Then the man paused and looked closely at Noah who was fading rapidly. “ You second time in Banaras, yes?” Oh great, Noah thought to himself, I am never getting out of here. And at that like a flash of lightning he shat himself and humbly walk away to find rest and cleansing.
Back in his prison of a room he waited as the fluorescent light flickered for a minute before coming to life. He laid down and stared at the fan going wild on the ceiling, it was the only thing to look at. The walls were bare and plain and the bed filled the small room. Otherwise there was his camera equipment. A glance in it’s direction only brought upon guilt and confusion. Guilt for wasting his talent and not taking any pictures and guilt for taking photos. The little voice were talking up a storm.
It was a curse for him, he didn’t seem to be able to win and it was tearing him apart. If only I could understand my motives, he thought. Surely not all the photos I took were ill-intended. Many were of colorful unique people taken with care for the subject who was in turn proud to be photographed and to share with the viewers a slice of his or her culture. But it wasn’t those photos that ate him up in side it was the ones he took where the motives involved seemed out of focus. His motives, the subjects motives and the viewers interpretations of it all. He wished it was all black and white but knew like his photos there were many shades of grey.
‘I see an old man on the side of the road’, he pondered, ‘his mouth hanging open wishing he could drool but was too parched. I want to take this photo, but why? His 2.4 teeth on the left side of his mouth sparkle from the light coming through the crumbled building beside him, but there is no smile. The right side of his mouth is nothing but darkness, an empty abandon lot. Oily thick jet black hair grow 2 inches out of his ears as if in search for answers, that couldn’t be found inside. Wrinkles and groves that have seen more weathering than the coast of Scotland. One eye, hanging one to catch the end of the show. Do I find this man beautiful or do I actually find him just so ugly that I can justify taking his picture (along with his dignity) by calling it character.’
He recalls back to trekking in Nepal and coming across two young Nepalese girls. Clothing tattered, barefoot and carrying baskets on their backs that were almost as big as they were. In the name of social awareness he asked to take their photo. Their cuteness contrasted heavily by the hard lives set upon them. They really didn’t want to get their photos taken. They knew they appeared poorer and different to the fancy backpackers who came through spending more money on dinner then they see in months. But they also knew that there was a chance for gain in it. Money or candy or something.
The photos were empty and lacked emotion and were quickly followed by an outstretched hand and the words “rupee, rupee, sweets ?!” They wouldn’t have otherwise given of themselves. Just as a prostitute won’t sleep with you for free, pride has a price. And like having sex with a prostitute, taking someone’s picture whose allowing it only for the money can feel as cheap and as sleazy. And it shows on the film.
It was all becoming too much for Noah. He was weak and just wanted to relax. On the roof he found refuge in a novel. His mind drifted with the countless kites battling for airspace over Varanassi. Female monkeys flying from roof top to roof top, sometimes with one or two babies clinging to their belly. Proud male monkeys strutting along ledges swinging testicles so large it was no wonder why they never evolved like man into walking upright. The trade off didn’t seem worth it for them. Noah had a keen eye for detail and was distracted easily, slipping into the calming world that is the roof tops over Varanasi.
He was spending too much time alone and the demons in his head were working overtime. He needed some tender human contact and knew only one place to buy such intimacy in India. The barbershop.
Noah found that going for a shave was rather a treat. He hated shaving himself for he always hacked up his face. Getting someone else to do it on the other hand was sweet. The lathering and warming up the face. The gentle tickle of the blade. The way the Indian barbers pinched and stretched his skin to get a clean shave. The slapping on of disinfectants afterwards. It all appealed to him, especially the bizarre face and head massage which include various forms of slapping, pounding, hair and ear pulling and sometimes even eye ball rubbing. He’d always come out smacked around looking like he went through the spin cycle, but feeling thoroughly refreshed from it. Sometimes even a little bruised and confused.
The following week back on the streets of Varanassi the noise of the constant honking and bike bells were reaching over saturation. Still he saw photos all around him, he couldn’t escape it. He felt he had to get out of Varanassi before he went completely mad. He booked a train ticket and checked out the following day. He had only been 19 days in Varanassi but it was time to go.
The next morning he replaced the burned pillowcase. Sewing a new case over the burnt pillow and then another over that. The black charcoal still came through the fresh white layers. His train didn’t leave till midnight so he left his bag with the hotel management and spent the day in the restaurant reading. As nightfall came he went for a walk and bought a hat. He liked it. He didn’t normally wear hats but this one work, and he instantly grew attached to it.
Proudly wearing his new hat and giddy with the concept of leaving he went for a thali at a restaurant near the river. Before his food arrived the front of the restaurant burst into flames, starting with electrical problems in the brightly illuminated sign above the entrance. It quickly spread to the clothes hanging outside the adjacent shop. The restaurant was cleared and Noah wandered on unfazed by it all, thinking someone has got some nasty karma to deal with.
His wanderings found him again by the ghats overlooking one last cremations. It felt different this time no longer timeless as before. Tourists with Jansport day bags sipping Coca Cola held him securely in 1998. And as he joined the mourners silently and seemingly emotionless gaze on the fire as it cleaned the body layer by layer, it happened.
An tourist who happened upon this bizarre cremation scene thought he wanted to preserve this moment on film. He took out his point and shoot camera, walked toward the fire, bent at the waist and FLASH! Took a picture. In the dark of the night the flash was so overwhelming that the world seemed to freeze for a bright instant. The outraged relatives of the deceased grabbed the camera and threw it in the fire.
Noah turned quietly in embarrassment and horror. He couldn’t believe what he had saw. His breathing became rapid and he felt light headed all of a sudden. That one really hurt. Being a photographer and a foreigner he felt responsible. He would have never taken the picture himself but deep down still felt the urge to capture the raw nature of the scene. And again it was his soul that was dying as a result.
He gathered his strength and his bags and took a tuktuk to the train station. While waiting on the platform he realized the hotel had gone through the trouble of getting to the bottom of his bag and stealing his expensive German sandals. Knowing full well he wouldn’t discover them missing till after leaving Varanassi.
“ Cheeky little bastards” he mumbled aloud to himself “ stealing a man’s footwear. No respect. They were perfectly broken in. I was one with those sandals.” But he really didn’t care that much he was just tired.
A group of mourners returning from a cremation carrying an empty stretcher entered the packed train before him. He made his way climbing from ladder to ladder down the passage to find his bunk. Walking on the floor was impossible as it was filled with men, women and children crammed together. In his compartment, tightly designed for eight passengers, more than twenty found refuge. But again he didn’t care he was just tired and glad to be leaving Varanassi.
He laid down his head on his bunk and immediately slipped into a dream. In the dream he was seeing the world through the tight narrow minded constraints of a camera viewfinder. Images he had taken flashed by. An uncomfortable prostitute smoking a cigarette looking at the stained 101 Dalmatian curtains that hung in the room. A young African boy wearing a small rag around his waist, a few flies on his head and his baby brother on his back. All starting empty into the camera as if it contained the truth. A man dripping with sweat, breaking his back, barefoot in a job he’ll do his entire life blankly glances up at the camera with a face that looks 94 years old but in reality he’s probably five decades younger, only rapidly aged by a hard life.
More images, more eyes, more vacant holes where dignity and pride had fled from. Not only the photos he had taken but others as well all with one thing in common. They lacked respect. The final image to appear was of a fire peeling back the flesh and meat on a body exposing the bone. The viewfinder suddenly goes bright white. There’s yelling and then it goes into a spin towards the fire. Dark sky. Crowd of mourners. Fire lit temples. Row boats on Ganges. They all go spinning past in a blur before crashing with fire works into a hot sea of bright white. Complete and total overexposure.
As the overnight train rumbled out of Varanassi Junction and under the single light, that was dimming due to power surges, a man passing by stole Noah’s hat. Slowly and cautiously he pulled it from under his head as not to wake him.
‘Cheeky little bastard, no respect I tell ya. Stealing a man’s hat and while he’s sleeping at that. I loved that hat. I was intimate with it damn it, we had chemistry together.’ Noah would have said if he noticed it missing. But he didn’t nor did he curse the fellow who would pinch his watch from the bag under his lifeless legs an hour later.
You see after having the last of his soul burnt out of him earlier that day along the river, his heart had no choice but to follow. Of course there are those who can live without a soul but only to their benefit. Evil, nasty folk who thrive on wrongdoing and don’t respect even themselves let alone others. But Noah wasn’t evil or at least he didn’t want to be.
Meanwhile the sun was busy preparing for yet another days work and soon the banks of the river would be flooded in divine light. Dhobi wallahs began work as usual pounding, scrubbing and beating the dirt out of heaps of laundry. Their soap subs mingled with flower petals, waste and ashes of the dead. A cow rubbed his itchy head against the wall. Large black birds were diving at things that bobbed in the river, while a purple kite climbed higher and higher into the sky. In the kaos of the city, cows were still shitting, relatives were being burned and children were being born. Just another day along the Mother Ganges and perhaps another chance.