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Ram’s Mosaic

We are sitting in a pale pink room. The side dressers, the wardrobes, the curtains, the baseboard, the lamp shell, and the shelves – everything but the sheets and red velvet pillow cushions are an affectionate pale pink. Street noise radiates at us from meshed windows. My Mama sits perched at the end of her bed, cross legged, looking back at me. She projects inquiringly “Have we burned Ravan?” She refers to the demon king with 10 heads. He is very powerful, but each head comes to inhabit a different vice. Vices, she says, that we all can hold. Ravan was defeated in a great war by Ram’s golden arrow to the naval. It is said that in his death he was thankful to Ram. The immortal demon king was to return to his home and be burned in ritual ceremony like everyone else. Dusherra is a holiday to celebrate this burning – it is a time where we are to commemorate evil’s passing. Mama cradles her head and sighs. “Our rituals used to mean something, Beta.” I nod sympathetically. We have not burned Ravan.

***

Sometimes I count the polka dots on my lofty orange mosquito net. The way that the cheap mesh square drapes around me, I feel as if I am at last in a royal canopy bed at the conclusion of a long, hot day. Some sacred items make it within the canopy. A two sided silk scarf, a funny ineffective travel neck pillow, and a small black square of a burner phone that holds my alarms. In Varanasi I am both within and without time. I never know what time it is yet somehow I make it where I need to be at the right moments. My 6:15am alarm is nullified by the pious bells that ring out at 5 am. Still I am awake to turn it off like clockwork. I live a beautiful organized chaos.

***

My fire red bicycle jets and swankers down the busy street. My retro, Dasani themed, Styrofoam helmet reads “fuego”. The double suspension bike is emblazoned with the word “hippo” on the side. Being 6 foot 5 and skinny, I laugh and decide it should say “giraffe”. Mama tells me 3 Princeton students have graced this vessel before me. On my first ride I am nervous that my aptitude is not at high enough a standard for such a legacy. As I weave through traffic I ask my SAT scores and extracurriculars to take the handles from me – for some reason this strategy does not work. I try and explain to the Ivy bike that I could have had a higher GPA if I tried harder. After a 1 hour wait list at a bike shop refilling old tires we agree to a 1 month truce. There is no center line on the streets of Varanasi. I narrowly swoop past a moped with a couch tied to it. A cow with a deformed face briefly chases behind me and gives up. Somehow it all works. Cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, bulls, water buffalo, fruit carts, and school children simply move only where they can – nowhere else. We form one giant rolling and wheeled organism. As my lanky frame zooms by store fronts, side of the road tea stops, and school busses I am the sight to see. Usually tourists stick to being towed in convenient rickshaws. I look a wonderful fool. Everyone smiles back. I love every second of it.

***

The gas crematorium is a massive pale yellow – washed sandstone or an archaic rain coat. It hovers on concrete stilts above the waterfront. I meet my Guru by an array of traditional log cabin thatches containing burning bodies. They are doused in milk lotion or purified butter. You cannot smell the flesh. My Guru does not speak English. It makes for good forced Hindi practice. “Chalo,” he leads me up a spiraling tunnel walk way. There is a body on a freshly grafted bamboo stretcher. The whole family is gathered around it. They wrap her themselves. Usually, the day you die is the day you are burned. We spelunk the inside of the massive yellow beast. The conversion to a gas cremation system is only 6 months old. It is cheaper economically and relatively less environmentally taxing of an option than the wood pyres. In the ash depository my Guru stoops then produces a white hunk that runs from my shoulder to the tip of my elbow. “Bone.” He lives just 300 meters up the street. Dying, which only happens once, is his everyday thing.

***

You have to hold the browned clay cup by the top. It does not conduct chai heat as rapidly as metal cups, but, as it is poured freshly boiled at the Assi Ghat river front, the view and potential for tongue burns encourage opportunity filled patience. We get 4, one for each of us and one for our new Sadhu friend, Amrit. A Sadhu is, in some ways, comparable to a Hindu nomad who has relinquished a ‘normal’ life for religion. He does not have and does not need many things. He wears only a red turban head wrap and a red cloth for underwear. In the winter, he tells us, sometimes he gets another piece of cloth for his top half. It is enough. For now he cooks in the same spot in the sun. His skin is like tanned leather, sun wrinkled. His age is undetectable other than ‘old’ because of this. His frame is wirey but in no way weak, he maintains the same skyward sitting posture on a stone ledge all day until he sleeps. He does not need to move to find shade. The world revolves around him and the tree he sits under provides intermittent and shifting protection. “I like this Ghat because it only has two steps,” he tells us sipping chai, “the toilet has a hand rail.” He is disabled. A motorcycle accident 10 years ago crushed one of his vertebrates irreconcilably. He does not worry, without fault people bring him food and cigarellos. Varanasi has systems for their Sadhus. In this moment I realize that Varanasi is valued for more than just some religious phenomenon – it consists of a spiritual community. Amrit is a living encyclopedia of India. He has been all over. “Sadhus are outside of Indian law, if we want to go somewhere we get on the train. No ticket, no questions.” He planted himself on his dusted brown rock steeple 6 months ago now. He tells us he will be here for some time. We plan to come back to pick the mind as vast as India.

***

Sometimes, coming in, I cross the speckled marble in flippant Dad Sandals. Else, I am barefoot. The smooth stone conducts heat but not the dirt from the soles of my feet. The hallway ascends 5 floors on one side to our morning rooftop yoga practice. On the other it retreats into a wide room full of beautifully sheeted floor mattresses. The idea of chairs becomes a ridiculous notion when I am so surrounded by comfortable meeting space options. I decide if I am ever to be a CEO every conference room will be filled with comical trampoline flooring. Raj greets me from the kitchen entryway with the brightest glowing smile. We have a secret handshake. He refers to me by my Hindi name – Lakshman. His job at the program house consists of mostly everything. Being goofy with us is his true passion. On day one our classic Hindi teacher informs us how to respond “I am fine.” On day one Raj teaches me how to proclaim “I am 200% amazing!” We do not yet share much language between us but I can feel that, of whatever energies we are all made of, his and mine are much alike.

***

I make it a challenge to buy the cheapest kurta shirt I can find. It is an ironical gold and at the price of 150 rupees is worth roughly 2 USD. The fabric, Suresh assures me, is as cheap as it comes. I could not be more thrilled with my purchase. The thinness and openness of the cloth allows air to pass right through me. This is ideal in Varanasi’s humid heat. It is stylish too – 3 wood cylinders pass through loops as button mechanisms. I notch up only 2, stripping and changing in the 8 ft x 8 ft space filled by myself, Suresh, a middle aged French woman and my new friend Maria from Denmark. Foreigners often gather in his tiny glass box insulated with stacks of clothing as hideaway from the external heat. Suresh has a tangible energy which naturally draws people to his shop – there is no pressure, you feel at home. My AP Literature teacher used to commend trilinguism as genius. Suresh knows at least 6 languages and parts of others because of his budding relations with anyone who visits. He has made a business of honesty and friendship of which clothing purchases are an agreeable side effect. He details for me, the economic skeptic, his supply chain from fabric market to final product. In total he will make 30 cents from my kurta purchase. I know that this little glass box will not only be good for price checking but friend making, too. “Siddhartha, who would become a Buddha, left royalty behind to pursue his truth” he begins as we step out his storefront, “when you listen to yourself instead of as others would see you, you will find yourself much happier-ji.” I love my kurta, its gold glimmers wiser than Louis Vuitton.

***

I was born in the darkness. I could not see the colors. Here, in Varanasi, the hues of life have begun to swirl together in organized chaos. There, where I am from, unpainted greed masquerades as law and order. No, mama you are right, we have not burned Ravan. Mama, I must tell you I find Ravan massive and very hard to burn. Mama, I think I have made it to the city of light to see the power of fire, to be 200% amazing, to live outside of time, to discover tea cooling, to bask in little glass boxes and ride in rampant streets. Mama, I really do hope one day that we will be able to burn Ravan.