All about a boy in Varanasi, and tall tales from Grey­town.

A chance en­counter in In­dia’s spir­i­tual cap­i­tal shows Chris van Ryn the depths of hu­man re­silience and hope.

North & South - - Columns -

Hello, Im very said now be­cause I can’t get your mobail. How I can give you the my num­ber be­cause I don’t have the mobail. Ac­tu­ally I don’t have the mobail. Do you un­der­stand? When I was re­ceive your par­cel af­ter I open ur par­cle but in par­cal there is not mobail only mo­bile guide book & charger have in the par­cel. ... Halp me. Your friend, Praveen

Imet 12-year-old Praveen eight years ago, on the steps of Assi Ghat in Varanasi, In­dia. That we con­nected at all sur­prises me. He was one of a thou­sand hus­tling street kids. It went like this: “Which coun­try?” “New Zealand.” He is slight, with a wave of rich black, oily hair. He wears a clumsy but neat shirt and ill­fit­ting navy blue trousers which stop well short of his an­kles.

It’s early. The sun is just wedg­ing open the dark­ness. The ghats –

cer­e­mo­nial steps that creep down to the river’s edge – fill up at sun­rise with colour­ful devo­tees seek­ing spir­i­tual cleans­ing through im­mer­sion, si­mul­ta­ne­ously car­ry­ing out daily ablu­tions.

The steps are muddy. The air smells of goat and cow shit, un­der­arm sweat and in­cense. The hori­zon is a greasy smog and the Ganges, that spir­i­tual artery, is a fast­flow­ing muddy brown. Sur­round­ing me are the ex­pres­sions and emis­sions of a 4000-year- old city, choked with re­li­gion and hu­mans,

ve­hi­cles and wan­der­ing an­i­mals.

But when the sun – alight­ing on par­ti­cles of pol­lu­tion – ex­pands out from the hori­zon, there is a mag­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion.

Half-naked bathers be­come sil­hou­ettes, a rim of gold edg­ing their pro­files. Sat­u­rated light flows and glows and gilds ev­ery­thing, and sud­denly, while ten­drils of in­cense dance upon ther­mal cur­rents, the goat be­side me stops chew­ing and con­tem­plates the hori­zon, the sil­hou­ettes look up, hands raised in rap­tur­ous sup­pli­ca­tion, and we are all deep in­side a beau­ti­ful, tran­scen­dent, mys­ti­cal mo­ment, and... “Aah, cricket!” says Praveen. Here we go again. Ev­ery time I men­tion New Zealand, bloody cricket and Martin Crowe sur­face. “Martin Crowe!” He smiles broadly. “Yeah.” I avoid eye con­tact. Praveen hov­ers, un­de­terred. Then, “What’s that?” I ask, point­ing at some­thing floating in the river.

“A body.” He waves his hand dis­mis­sively.

Varanasi is In­dia’s largest “fu­neral par­lour”. Ev­ery­one wants to breathe their last here. Bod­ies wrapped like mum­mies can be seen strapped to the top of rick­shaws, heads lolling around to the rhythm of pot­holes as they make their way to the river’s edge. The Ganges fer­ries thou­sands of corpses to spir­i­tual re­birth, as­sisted by an es­ti­mated bil­lion litres of un­treated sewage daily. I look up­river, along the long cres­cent of steps that seep down from the city to the Ganges.

“If you want to go there,” says Praveen, in­ter­pret­ing my gaze, “you got to go this way.” Grin­ning, he heads up the steps – and I fol­low.

Varanasi is an im­mense crossword puz­zle of tiny, dim al­ley­ways, flanked by an­cient, lop­sided build­ings. Barely a me­tre wide, these alleys are punc­tu­ated by dark al­coves – shops where in­di­vid­u­als squat, knob­bly knees up near the ears, white robes folded be­tween the thighs, reach­ing hands invit­ing in­spec­tion and pur­chase. Dur­ing the day, fil­tered light squeezes through the an­cient cracks in the build­ings; at night you might as well be un­der­ground.

Mo­tor­bikes and scoot­ers scream their way down these im­pos­si­bly nar­row walk­ways, the rider’s knees chaf­ing the sides. A squeal­ing horn means you have a few sec­onds to scut­tle into an open­ing or risk join­ing the queue down at the cre­ma­tion ghat.

The smell of ex­cre­ment is an over­rid­ing sensory ex­pe­ri­ence in Varanasi. At the top of the ol­fac­tory shit-scale is cow dung, which is scooped up rev­er­en­tially by women, moulded into pancakes and slapped onto walls for dry­ing. Stringy buf­falo shit is next, fol­lowed by small and pleas­ant ( by con­trast) goat drop­pings. Then there is the ran­cid, in­stantly recog­nis­able odour of de­spair – hu­man shit.

I glance over my shoul­der as I trail be­hind Praveen. We are be­ing pur­sued by a withered lemon of a man in a bright orange out­fit. Un­der an even brighter orange tur­ban, sil­ver dread­locked hair spills out, so long it snakes over his shoul­der and is coiled around his waist. A large blob of yel­low turmeric is smeared, like a tar­get, be­tween his eyes. A long staff is clasped be­tween hands held to­gether as if in prayer. And he casts a be­atific look my way. “Who’s that?” I ask Praveen. “A tourist at­trac­tion.” “Re­ally? Looks like a guru or some­thing.”

“He wants to bless you. For ru­pees. But he is... um... ac­tor.”

Praveen gives him a “bug­ger off” ges­ture.

As we walk, he talks. His mother has a brain tu­mour; she’s in hospi­tal. His fa­ther re­turned to his own vil­lage two years ago un­der a cloud of poverty and grief. Praveen must make his own way now. He “ap­pren­ticed” him­self to an­other boy who sold post­cards to tourists. He con­structed English from a hap­haz­ard col­lec­tion of words dis­carded by tourists, then taught him­self some Span­ish from a book he found.

Praveen be­comes my guide. He knows where to get a beer. Or where

to find a cash­flow ma­chine. Or where to lis­ten to tra­di­tional tabla. Or the best view of a cre­ma­tion – up on a rooftop, over­look­ing the huge pile of burn­ing tim­ber, with a view out to hun­dreds of night-time can­dles bob­bing on the Ganges. He or­ders our meals at a restau­rant, and more than once I find my­self feed­ing sev­eral ex­tra mouths – street kids with va­cant looks he knew were hun­gry for a meal.

I’m not sure I mean it, but I say, “I’ll buy you a mo­bile phone once I get to Auck­land. So you can keep in touch with your fa­ther.”

He never asks me for money. At the end of each day, I fum­ble in my pocket for a few crum­pled ru­pees. He takes what­ever I give him, with­out a glance. The next morn­ing he’s wait­ing by the long row of hun­gry rick­shaws, just out­side my hotel.

On our last day to­gether, Praveen re­veals his de­ter­mi­na­tion to make some­thing of his life. He leads me down an al­ley, and, at a cor­ner, proudly shows me a ram­shackle build­ing he wants to buy – some day. “It is here,” he says, wav­ing his arms, “I can make good the busi­ness.”

His voice be­gins to rush and rise, as the ap­pari­tion of his dream ap­pears be­fore him. And in that mo­ment, stand­ing in the thick heat with the chaos of bod­ies around us – the re­lent­less, mad­den­ing rush of scut­tling, stum­bling, strug­gling hu­mankind – a defin­ing mo­ment emerges. The 12-year- old street kid says: “I have to study much for good ed­u­ca­tion. But I don’t do all ed­u­ca­tion, be­cause be­fore my ed­u­ca­tion I will start same busi­ness. What much I spend for ed­u­ca­tion, that much money I will spend for busi­ness. I like to do busi­ness for my life.”

Damn, it moves me, this small boy who dreams big, de­spite know­ing the near im­pos­si­bil­ity of achiev­ing his goal: to move his life from poverty to pros­per­ity. His is an in­tense, lu­mi­nous, am­bi­tious op­ti­mism. Where it comes from, I’ll never know.

Istare at my lap­top, think­ing about Praveen and Varanasi and poverty and strug­gles. Okay, no mo­bile. No sur­prise there. I hit “Re­ply” to Praveen.

“Don’t worry. I’ll send you some money and you can buy your own.”

I’m un­der no il­lu­sion that Praveen might choose to spend the money on some­thing else. I don’t care. Sev­eral weeks later, I get this email. “Hi My friend How are you? Thinkyou for halp me .......................... I Re­ceive your money.”

Praveen’s mother dies shortly af­ter I re­turn to Auck­land. I re­ceive a photo of her wrapped body sur­rounded by a small withered fam­ily. Praveen is there, squat­ting near her head, with deep, dark, sad eyes. A lit­tle later, she was floated onto the Ganges to re­turn to God and na­ture.

In 2008, a small story about Praveen is pub­lished. And some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary hap­pens. Peo­ple around New Zealand send me money: “Could you give this to Praveen, please?” Just like that.

A num­ber of peo­ple who have given money and are trav­el­ling to In­dia ask me for his de­tails. They look him up when they get there and send me “We’ve just met Praveen” emails.

For the next eight years, I send Praveen money. This year, he will start a two-year course at the Ba­naras Hindu Uni­ver­sity, study­ing Span­ish. It’s a re­mark­able achieve­ment: from street kid to stu­dent of Span­ish. He wants to start a travel agency. Maybe it will be lo­cated in that ram­shackle build­ing on the cor­ner of the dim al­ley where we stood eight years ago.

I’m con­vinced he can make good the “busi­ness for my life”.

• Thank you so much to those who sent money. I got to know some of your sto­ries, and I know that some­times you gave, even though you had your own life strug­gles.

Damn, it moves me, this small boy who dreams big, de­spite know­ing the near im­pos­si­bil­ity of achiev­ing his goal: to move his life from poverty to pros­per­ity.

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Birdlife on the Ganges at Dashash­wamedh Ghat, Varanasi.

Praveen, aged 12.

Above: Bathers at Assi Ghat, where the writer first met Praveen.

Above: Sad­hus – In­dian holy men – sit­ting in a tem­ple.

Above: A corpse wait­ing to be cre­mated at Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi.

Above: A re­cent photo of Praveen, now a 20-year-old uni­ver­sity stu­dent. Below left: An al­ley in Varanasi.

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