In Other Words
Bloomsbury, 193 pages by Piers Moore Ede,
Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede; and The Daughters by Adrienne Celt
Pilgrims visit the city of Varanasi, India, for many reasons: a dip in the holy waters of the Ganges river, to have prayers answered, or even to achieve salvation. Piers Moore Ede walks us past the windows of this pilgrim’s paradise in his intriguing travel memoir, Kaleidoscope City. Ede doesn’t take us into the city’s heart, but residents come up to him and talk freely about their city.
Varanasi is a real city, but also a mythic one. As an amateur sketcher tells Ede, “It is a city of the heart actually, that place we’re all trying to get to.” Ede is a sincere chronicler, but the book’s subtitle — a year in Varanasi — points to its limitations. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in India, and in the world, Varanasi cannot be expected to yield its depths to a temporary resident. Ede often resorts to relating conversations he’s had verbatim rather than giving us a digested account that flows into a coherent narrative. He tries to dig deep, but he also comes perilously close to being the Westerner who goes to India on a worthy quest, only to merely ingest information rather than having an original experience.
Ede’s search is valuable mainly because he approaches it with sensitivity not only toward Varanasi’s spiritual lore, but also to its ills, such as the human trafficking that lurks on its margins. He rents two rooms in Varanasi and sets about trying to understand the city that exerts a pull on so many. He interviews a few intriguing characters and occasionally strikes gold. The chapter on Ramlila, a folk play based on the Indian epic
Ramayana, brims with observation. Ede gets permission to see the play’s rehearsal and witnesses how the young actors playing Rama and his brothers are treated as divine embodiments during the play’s run. He steals a chat with the excruciatingly busy set-master who has to move countless props around a number of locations for this theatrical tour de force. Later, we experience sitting in a field and waiting for the performance to begin. Loyal older audiences bring their copies of the
Ramayana to follow the play’s progression. The most elite audience member — the Maharajah — arrives atop a decorated elephant, accompanied by chants of “Hara Hara Mahadev!”, which acknowledge his traditional status as a reincarnation of Shiva.
Hindus commonly believe that those who die in Varanasi are assured liberation. Ede visits burning ghats, where the dead are cremated, and speaks to an Aghori sadhu whose path to salvation includes such practices as drinking water from human skulls. The manager of one burning ghat tells him: “You Western people fear death so much, but you fear it because you do not know it. For you, death is the counterpoint to life. It is something final, something bad. But for us Hindu people we see death as the counterpoint to birth.” The same man narrates the story of King Harishchandra, who was tried by the gods in as agonizing a way as Abraham was — among other trials, through the sacrifice of his son — and who eventually gained salvation for himself and all his subjects. While this explains in theory why Varanasi is a place of salvation for “all Hindus,” the book doesn’t get to the center of the city’s spiritual allure.
There are lively accounts of the city’s sweet-sellers, weavers, and musicians. In one sweetshop in the old district, Ede unforgettably sees several mice scurrying about in a space that can only euphemistically be called a kitchen. He does eventually find a more modern and hygienic sweetshop, but its proprietor complains of power failures and that he can’t run his business without a generator.
Why is this city, which is so expert at sustaining raagas (melodic modes) and devotees so lacking in infrastructure? The Ganges, its holy river, is polluted beyond belief: “Now the most contaminated river in the world, the faecal coliform bacteria levels at Banaras are 60,000 parts per 100 ml, or 120 times the official safe bathing limit.” Why has a decades-old plan to clean the river come to naught? This is a complex question, and Ede has extended conversations about it with the regular boatman who takes him across the river. A professor who initiated an ambitious plan, which is now stalled, to clean up the river is haunted by the thought that he has wasted his life, and he does not care to talk to any more journalists.
There are others who don’t mind talking. The city’s weavers have an incredible story. The Muslim master weavers are still thriving because no machine can produce the luxurious silk saris they weave. However, the Hindu weavers do not produce such upmarket goods, and mass-produced clothes from China have tragically upended their way of life.
Ede deftly gets across the contradictions inherent in Varanasi, and in India. This is a city and a country where corrupt officials coexist with do-gooders, where materialism walks hand-in-hand with spirituality. The best of what this book has to offer are Ede’s cleareyed observations of what the city shows him during his year there. And he transmits this experience to us without a veil of judgment. — Priyanka Kumar