Underground in Varanasi: Contrasts and Blasphemies

By far, the most common remark from foreigners who have travelled in India, is that she does not leave you unmoved. Whether you loved her or hated her, whether you've felt both - in succession or at once - India challenges the traveller. 

Even a zoomed-in story of a zoomed-in slice of time, already contains juxtapositions unbidden. Whenever you move away from something, the movement itself reveals its different side you did not see before, and forces you to contradict yourself. This phenomenon defies description. It is a feeling that is made of a series of feelings, thoughts that morph and evolve from one end to its opposite end, and so is difficult to rationalise within the bounds of sentences. 

So I think most people writing about it more or less leave it at that, and focus more on things they liked, or grew to love. But I want to try simply narrating the random moments, in an attempt to let my readers see how quickly the experience moves between feelings and thoughts which are quite at odds to one another. Making it sound as if different people were thinking at the different parts. 

Fair warning!

Most of the time, I prefer to not to focus on the experience that is still in flux. I prefer to wait for these temporary feelings and thoughts to resolve itself, and craft the story from what emerges. 

But because of how central this flux is to so many travellers' reports of the Indian travel experience, and because my blog philosophy is about shedding light into yourself through the experience of travel, I will break the pattern.

I am going to pull from my travel notes some of these raw and controversial thoughts.

Controversial thoughts ahead!

Yes, some of them are going to come across judgy. Some will come across impatient. Some will be petty.

Signage in Varanasi alley in front of the Blue Lassi shop

Look, we all have such uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. It's part of the struggle of being human. 

Emotional intelligence gives us the ability to acknowledge, and then choose what to do about thoughts. Simply having them is not 'bad', nor does it mean I had a 'bad time'.

In fact, at one point or another, I have thoughts similar to these in many challenging places I travel to - they're not specific to India or Varanasi. But they've not been important to the story I want to tell, anywhere else. So they stay where they belong, in the left hand column - those thoughts we leave unsaid. 

However, this story is about the middle part, before you finish making up your mind about what to do about your left hand column thoughts

Why I came to Varanasi

Back before I embarked on this month-long trip, I mentioned to my Indian colleague that I meant to see a bit of India, before returning home from Nepal. 

"Oh, which part?" he asked idly. So I explained that I meant to focus just on Uttar Pradesh, because the Taj Mahal was in this state. However, one of the places I meant to visit while in Uttar Pradesh, was Varanasi. 

He paused. He seemed to mull something over in his mind. Then he asked me, quite tentatively, "Are you... sure? Varanasi is very... Indian. I mean, even I..." 

His hesitation did not surprise me. No matter what nationality you are, upper middle class people are the ones who least understand the appeal of travelling as opposed to holidaying. And a top multinational corporation is often almost entirely comprised of upper middle class people.

Sheltered, secure in long-term jobs that they are usually excellent at. Usually uncurious about anything not related to one's own profession or issues of one's own suburbia. There's a reason why top multinationals have actual HR training to teach staff how to be curious about the world outside the corporation, and courses on how to see things from someone else's point of view. (I'm not joking.) 

I suppose, in fairness, he meant that it would not have a lot of familiar megapolis comforts. Perhaps he assumed I was like any other person in the upper middle class demographic. Varanasi is the most important city of Hinduism, but not exactly the cosmopolitan business centre. And then there are the sanitation issues and the cows everywhere; I've already read about that in a couple of travel articles about Varanasi. 

Show me the other side

But here's a controversial thought. I've already visited the part of India that was one of the 'easy' parts. My first trip to India in the state of Karnataka mostly felt as if I didn't really leave Malaysia. Except possibly to go back in time a few decades when the semi-rural small towns and its sleepy, simple life was still common. 

But, fairly or unfairly, that part is not what people mean when they say, 'India'.

Path to Manikarnika ghat passing by a high stack of wood for the cremation pyres of the burning ghat | View while wandering the alleys of old Varanasi

I felt I needed to feel what it was like to travel through one of the parts of India that people usually think of when they mean, 'India'. The part that was dense, where you would swear you could feel 'the second most populous nation on earth'. 

I knew it would not feel easy. But people - so very many people - live in these conditions that I would not find easy. 

If I wanted to understand the world, I could not do as the typical well-off urbanite does, absorbed in the vanity of ever more niche lifestyle groups and identities. The most comfortable classes in the world, somehow have no time to notice the vast millions outside our cocoons.

The paradox of inequality. 

And besides, how can I speak about sustainability and climate change, without understanding what is real for the majority of the world? I did not want to be as the urban activist, who insist on nice-sounding, black-and-white, 'if I can do it', militantly inflexible ideologies, which are not as universally practicable as they believe. 

I got what I wished for.

Well, I wanted to feel it for myself. I thought as I lay on my bed in the hostel.

It was well past midnight, and yet somehow the traffic has not let up. Which means the engines and the honking had not stopped either. And it was only a side street below my window - not even the main street. 

Presumably it's because many were still working, work that has to extend to late into the night. But it means, their traffic also lengthens the stress period of those who have reached home. The density means, you have to hear it. 

This is what it's like for people here, every day. 

And the August dustiness of the streets, leaving a film of grime over your clothes every time you venture out. I think back on the Rotaract Club's hand washing street mural campaign in Kathmandu. There just doesn't seem to be a point in that here. I noted the black outer robes and face veil commonly worn by the Varanasi Muslim women; in this context they suddenly made sense. 

Not to mention the general lack of public toilets. You develop a steely front-facing gaze for those occasions when you need to resolutely stride past corners where you'd rather not admit you saw anything. I recall some Indian TV I watched in Nepal which mesmerised me. An Indian pop star was singing a semi-ironic semi-PSA song urging the end of public defecation, urging his countrymen to live up to being a nation that is making so many advances in the world stage. It was peppy, funny, and good-natured, with the flamboyant dance moves which are signature Bollywood.

I guess at least it sort of prepared me for something I did not realise, slightly ahead of my arrival. 

So many things I take for granted, are actually luxuries. 

Yet Varanasi has a vain side.

Maybe it's because she is used to being the centre of attention. As the spiritual heart of Hinduism and annual recipient of the most pilgrims in the world, when most people come, it is to adore her. She is perfect, and everyone says so - there can't be anything wrong with her! And never mind about other places, let's get back to talking about how wonderful here is.

But you go along with it, since in fact, you are here to visit her. 

Nonetheless, it makes for some surreal effects I have yet to quite see elsewhere. In fact, I've never seen the pattern in a place, but I have seen it in people. Specifically, it's the pleasant, pretty girl who is always given her way, always the centre of attention, and consequently never learned to consider what it's like to be not-her - but sweet-natured enough that she is not mean about it. 

No one I spoke to, talked about any place other than Varanasi - not even about other parts of India. From the university museum to the hostel, there was no curiosity. No, what's it like where you're from, or where are you going next or where in India have you visited already? 

I had the strangest feeling that I was supposed to want to stay in Varanasi forever and ever. 

Majestic palace walls and towers overlooking a Varanasi ghat, with river boats moored by the edge of the Ganges river

The Underground Cafe

I was quite relieved when I came upon the Underground Cafe. Here, I heard what must qualify locally as heretical thoughts. 

Curious about what is meant by 'underground', I peeped in. It was disappointingly small. 'Underground' meant stepping down a few steps into a lowered space which was turned into a little sitting area. But the proprietor, a young-ish man, quickly welcomed me in and sat me at a table. 

Within, there were cushions to sit on before low tables, and the decor was pretty trippy. However, the menu was assuringly banal. I ordered some food, and he sent a friend with the order to another place. Apparently Underground Cafe was more of a hangout den, and the actual kitchen was elsewhere. 

Frankly, the food was just mediocre. But the conversation made up for it. He was the first person I met in Varanasi who talked frankly, practically, and wanted to talk about other-than-Varanasi. He liked Nepal too, and had been to Pokhara several times. 

Controversial thoughts indeed. 

Noise + dominance

He readily agreed that the unceasing traffic noise and hurry was a stress burden on neighbourhoods. Most especially the guys his own age, who had begun bringing modified motorbikes into the alleys behind the ghats, bringing loud engine noises and honking into the old city. Not the cool opinion, he admitted. But I just can't stand it

As if on cue, one passed by loudly as we were talking, and he got up in annoyance to chase after it. 

Imposing medieval palace on Dharbanga ghat, Varanasi | Benaras waterfront of the GangesNow there's something that was niggling at me, ever since I was driven to my hostel from Varanasi airport.

I'm Asian. I know the norm of honking in the more dense parts of Asia as a means of communication and alerting other road users of your presence. I don't like it, but in certain cities I somewhat get it. 

What I heard in Uttar Pradesh wasn't just that. Aside from the 'I am here' purpose, there was another kind. A more obnoxious kind. The timing, the manner, and who does it - it seems to me that it's about more powerful vehicles pushing weaker ones out of the way. The bigger and more important the vehicle was, the louder and longer the horns.

I couldn't help matching it to something else I saw - people escorted in the airport (presumably VIPs) simply walk wherever, even right into your way and expect you, the not-VIP, to pay attention and give way. And the grimy boy in the street where I was assisted with my SIM card, smiling serenely as a motorbike bully grasped his shirt front while his buddy in front threatened to start driving. 

No, feminists. It is not just girls who are taught to smile when oppressed. Hierarchy and dominance is much more complex outside of the Western experience. Gender is only one criteria. Come here, and this time open your eyes. 

Desire for distinction

I remembered my amazement in Nepal when my trekking guide talked blithely of her friends who were working in Dubai airport as cleaners, saying it was a 'good job'. She talked of working abroad for a while, just to see what it's like. There was no trace of class consciousness at all. No apology or justification for why the menial job was ok.

A job was judged based on whether it got you what you wanted out of it, and that's it. It was the way things should be. The only reason I was amazed, is because it is not so in my culture. You must study hard, otherwise you'd end up like that cleaner

Personally, I'd rather we had cleaners than telemarketers calling me to sell bank loans. I could live without one, but a lack of the other is a significant drop in my quality of life! 

Insistence on formal distinction to elevate oneself socially is not unusual. At varying levels you note it in cultures as far apart as Germany and the Philippines. But it is something we frequently remark upon specifically for India in the workplace, from reviewing CVs and managing colleagues in hubs newly opened there. It's taken to a whole new level.

Motorcycles resting against decorated columns of an old Varanasi building

Every degree and every title, every certificate and every award, is mentioned. And woe betide the lesser credentialed person who tries to correct the PhD! Although perhaps an exaggeration, the first plot twist of the movie 3 Idiots only makes sense in such an environment.

I remember once telling my expat American consultant point blank, perhaps he'd get more teamwork if he had purposely hired the slightly-less-credentialed candidates. 

But arriving in Varanasi, I understood why the need for distinction, for some mark of elevation. To some extent it is so across Asia - but perhaps especially across any nation whose populous masses are gripped in poverty, but had a relic of once-greatness to live up to. 

And India, the land of contrasts, has that comparison sharper than most. It is no wonder that having something to hold to - to be seen - acquires such importance. 

And paradoxically, maybe it's also why many religious movements in India have gone the other way, centring around embracing being... unseen. 

Magic lassi + sobriety

He asked if I was looking for 'magic lassi'. The way he said it, I understood there is some narcotic involved. 

It's all legal here, he assured me. Shiva's City. That's why the Beatles liked it here, he added. You know the Beatles? Sure.

For the life of me I couldn't recall which narcotic was commonly linked to the slang 'magic'. I asked if it was weed. 

He shook his head slowly. Not weed, another leaf. He did not know the name. Only that, it doesn't make you depressed, nor does it make you crazy.

I let it go. I knew the term was for something stronger than that. Being neither a junkie nor a doctor, it's not at the tip of my mind. I was not about to try it, anyway. 

Graffiti on a wall at a Varanasi ghat by the Ganges river | Modern street art in VaranasiHe mentioned several things after, in a context I don't quite remember. But I remember it was a bizarre combination of views. Or maybe it was just that my cultural perception of socially accepted drug use is borrowed from the Western context, where it is linked to libertarian values. 

He does not drink, he asserted. Sober. Quit drinking 6 months ago, and he likes it that way. Drinking lost him many things, he told me with firm finality. 

He told me that there was no more red light district here. He approved. Shared his thoughts about bars and tourism and bizarrely, Thailand lady-boys. He is against tourism that is absent of local connection. 

I fleetingly wondered what his Western guests might have responded to his pro-drug, anti-alcohol, anti-prostitution combo. I'm sure he would have had them, given this set-up and a name like 'Underground Cafe'. Or maybe he tends to get different ones than Bali does. After all, despite both being Hindu cities, and well-known to backpackers, Varanasi and Kuta could not feel further apart. 

Astrology + affordable housing

The conversation shifted to astrology babas and fortune telling. There was a couple from Chile cycling around the world, who had stopped by. They had recommended an astrologer to him. This astrologer is in town, he says. He was thinking of trying it out. Don't you want to know the future? 

The future. Very tempting, indeed. I'm open enough to hear from an astrologer - or anyone, really. But I tell him, I prefer to also be shown the knowledge behind the prediction, rather than just receive the prediction alone. He agreed that this was a fair point. 

Why do you want to know the future? He shifted restlessly.

There are no jobs, he said. And cost of living keeps rising. Do you know how much it is to buy a house now? Everyone he knows worries about this. No one can afford a house of their own. 

The struggle for opportunity. For jobs. And really, for self-sufficiency. Never mind quality of life. For dignity.

The too-thin street sweepers beneath the ancient walls, the too-thin elderly rickshaw drivers honked at daily by bikes and cars to get out of the way. Out of the way of others more fortunate than they. 

Now here's a provocative thought. This same world is a world where just 8 people have as much as 3.8 billion of us

A problem of too many people, or not enough souls? 

Goats butting heads on cremation firewood stores near Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, India | Controversial thoughts

The effect of travel

The mythology is that the jobless are so because they're not very smart, not educated. And maybe this is true in some places. Maybe

But I was once guided in Cambodia by a trained teacher, well-informed and educated, but who was not employed. I had the best walking tour in Valparaiso with a political firebrand whose grasp of history and world events was as good as any lecture, but he was not employed. And the man I met in the Varanasi cafe talked as well as any middle class man about his city's maintenance needs, yet he was not employed. I was not even sure of his level of formal education. 

But he had travelled. That allowed him to compare other places with his own. Maybe that was why he alone of the people I met so far, had the interest to talk about something other than Varanasi, and could see the issues that were invisible to his neighbours. 

Would hippies still like Varanasi if it were well-run?

How little a touch of order it would take to improve the quality of life for so many! How much a talented and sensitive engineer could gift the city if he had a free hand, that astrologers and priests could not. I'm quite certain that were it possible to wave a wand and import upgraded roadways, engineered sanitation, drainage, etc. the local people would like that for their Shiva city. 

Yet we are often made to believe we have to choose between the two. By cultures who still hang on to a binary worldview, which is so yesterday. The universe is quantum, people. 

Boatload of pilgrims arriving on Manmandir ghat in Varanasi, India | Hindu pilgrims arriving in Benaras down the GangesIndeed, the old city still bore the traces of well laid stone, all along the ghats, that have lasted the centuries. The tall minarets of old palaces and the Jantar Mantar observatory that was once intended to make astronomy accessible to the common people, were evidences of a former flourishing city. What might it have looked like, when the city was well run? 

And I wonder ... I wonder if hippies would still like the spirituality of Hinduism in Shiva's city, if the city was not poor, and ran as well as their developed cities back home.

Do foreign visitors tolerate the lack of amenities and infrastructure because these are not important relative to the spiritual practice in the city? Or do they want it to stay that way, to maintain the exotic image of the city's spirituality, i.e. different from the world they came from? 

What if you viewed a destination as a 'person'?

Indeed, the visitor's tolerance for the way Varanasi is as a city, is quite high. Even though, the city actually does very little to accommodate the foreigner. There is almost no non-Indian food to be found, nothing at all that is intended for the non-Indian tourist or pilgrim. Only one of the telco companies' official offices was even aware that the process for a foreigner to get a SIM card, was not the same as for a local. 

The irony is, elsewhere in Asia where the locals are accommodating of visitors, foreign visitors expect things to be just like home. There aren't enough options for food on this remote paradise island. There are no bars in this rural sober small town. We can't just take fish from the marine park even though it's pretty. There isn't a bikini beach on this tiny conservative atoll. They enforce their laws on us, which are different from ours back home. There isn't a music scene in this isolated place of outstanding natural beauty.

I wonder how much more bizarre such complaints can get while maintaining a zero trace of irony. I guess as the world gets ever more unequal, I'll hear it soon enough. Maybe in a decade someone might ask for an ice hotel in the middle of a penguin colony in a rapidly melting Antarctica. Fortunately Antarctica is not a country struggling with GDP, or there will be such a hotel. 

The pretty girl analogy comes to mind again.

Maybe destinations should behave more like people. Don't bend over backwards and sell out your identity to please others. It seems that's the way to make people do the work of adapting to you. And if they go elsewhere, then they weren't good friends anyway. 

Altar nook to Shiva in a Varanasi alleyway, and Shiva lingas further down the alley | View while wandering the warrens of Varanasi's old city

The diver by the Ganges

My walk after the meal meandered into Manikarnika Ghat again. It was nearing sunset. Up to day 3, the locals had ignored me as I wandered in the old city alone. But by day 3, young men began to call out to me. 

Not creepily, just curious. "Weren't you here yesterday, with Najindran?" one of them asked. I made polite replies, but did not stop to chat. 

But I did stop when a young man called out, asking if I were a diver. There's a fellow diver in the humble alleys of landlocked ancient Varanasi? Let's face it, scuba diving is not a cheap sport. Especially if you don't already live someplace where there are scuba schools. 

His name was Majnoj, and he reminded me that there are ways that the bottom 50% can get the same experiences that the top 10% indulges in. He learned to dive in the Maldives, where he once migrated to work. I was wearing a T-shirt with a stylised manta on the back, which was as good as a banner to other sea-loving souls. 

Underneath it all, we seek our hearts

Upon finding out I was Malaysian, he told me of having been to Penang and Langkawi. They seemed to be good memories. He recommended Andaman to me, as a diver.

But 'in his life here', he runs a silk store. 

How about diving the Ganga? he joked with a grin. You might see bones. The air was still smoking with the cremation pyres. Er... maybe not. There wasn't a dive centre, anyway. 

As I took my leave, he confided in me how he loved the ocean. He did not know when he would see it again. 

Quite aside from the travel cost, I knew it's not a simple matter for certain nationalities to just buy plane tickets and go travelling. There are extra steps, before other countries let them in. And that's a maybe

Perhaps, there might be another opportunity to work, he mused. An invitation, to be able to dive again. 

Not everything we fall in love with is a person, or even a place. And even then, it can still be a long-distance relationship. 

Travel story "Underground in Varanasi: Contrasts and Blasphemies" from travel blog Teja on the Horizon | Pinterest image | A view from within the Underground Cafe up the entrance steps to a Varanasi alley

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2 Responses

  1. Cat Holladay says:

    What an amazing experience! Despite the challenges, travel has the ability to teach us so much.