In Other Words

Bloomsbury, 193 pages by Piers Moore Ede,

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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

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