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.
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.