Rain from the Ganges
I had come to Benares for Durga Puja quite unknowingly, the same way I had walked through its streets during the festival, following the current of people, moving with their flow. Feral dogs bared their teeth as I passed. Curled asleep, they jerked their heads up at my scent, growling and whining from alcoves and doorways and unlit alleys. It was something they sensed about me as soon as I came near — the way I smelled, mostly, but more than this, the way I walked, the sound of my breathing, my footsteps in heavy shoes. The dogs watched me. Some even stood and followed a slight distance behind me, snapping their teeth. They reacted to my presence like antibodies confronted with a disease.
The crowd streamed past hawkers selling eggplants and tangerines, candy and roasted peanuts, toys, trinkets, masks and bunches of balloons. The stores had stayed open late, and popular devotional music blared from speakers all along the street. Strings of colored lights hung overhead were arranged to make shimmering pictures: swastikas and the holy syllable OM, slaughtered goats hanging from hooks, Ganesh and Shiva and Durga herself.
The flow of the crowd took me down an alley that widened suddenly into an empty lot on which a large tent had been erected. It was the sort of canopy one might find at any state fair or carnival in America, but I was unsure whether I was allowed there — most temples are closed to whites, or at least unwelcoming, and there were no other non-Indians in sight. I hesitated, wondering if I should go on, or even if I would able to resist the flow of the crowd if I decided not to. At once I was taken in hand by three young boys.
“Hello, hello! Come, come!”
None of the adults paid me any mind, so I followed the boys toward the entrance to the tent.
Inside, Mother Durga rose before us on a wide stage. Gleaming white statues, nine feet tall or more, trimmed in red, black and gold, were arranged in a giant diorama, twenty or thirty feet across. At center stage, Durga sat astride a crouching tiger, shining brilliantly in the beam of a spotlight. Before her cowered the water buffalo-demon Mahishasura. Durga’s eight arms spread around her in a great fan, weapons gleaming in her hands. A slight smile lit her face as she drove her metal lance through the demon’s gut. Her tiger snarled ferociously, but Durga’s gaze remained calm and remote.
The force of the crowd pushed me all the way forward, to the edge of the temporary stage. The lights shone on the murtis — images, usually statues — of the gods. For an instant, I was left there, serenely untouched. This was the moment of darshan, of viewing the icons and entering into communion with the gods. Before they had been put on display, the murtis had been the object of rituals performed to imbue them with the presence of the divinities they depicted. For the length of their use, the statues are holy, serving as focal points of the divine presence. The murtis themselves are not worshipped, for they are merely vessels of clay.
The crowd began to move against me again, to usher me from the tent. Before I could leave, though, one of the boys I’d just met darted forward to a wide brass bowl at the edge of the platform, and scooped up a handful of the white pellets it contained. He handed them to me. Unsure of what they were, I put one on my tongue, still jostled by the hands and elbows of the crowd pressing against me. It dissolved sweetly on my tongue: sugar candy. He smiled as I tossed the rest in my mouth. This was prasad — literally, leftovers — food offered to and consecrated by the deity, but returned to the devotee; blessings bestowed through consumption.
With a last glance at the murtis on the stage, I followed the crowd out and into the night beyond, down an alley and back onto the street. Music was still playing outside, contemporary religious songs with flamboyant vocals over complex, throbbing beats. I passed a gang of soldiers waving bamboo canes above their heads, trying vainly to assert order on the crowded street. A cow stood beside them, her wide, dark eyes staring into the night.
Durga Puja honors a popular aspect of the Shaivite mother-goddess worshipped throughout India. The festival honoring Durga, sometimes called Navaratri, lasts nine days, each night celebrating another aspect of the goddess. The final night commemorates her victory over the demon Mahishasura, who often assumes the form of a water buffalo.
As the story goes, Mahishasura won near-invincibility as a favor from the gods for his extreme devotion. With this new-found power, he became ruthless and eventually evil, until even the gods feared him. In their fear, the gods called forth Durga, a fierce yet beautiful manifestation of Shiva’s shakti, his consort. The gods granted Durga many gifts, until her hands bristled with weapons and items of power. Mounted on a lion or tiger, she defeated Mahishasura and his armies, freeing heaven and earth.
On the ninth day of the festival, the murtis displayed during the previous days are carried in long processions through the streets of the old city to the river. Women and men walk in formations, in groups of eight or a dozen or more, some holding large neon tubes above their heads. In front, two or three men pushed a two-wheeled cart holding a portable generator, humming and sparking in the gathering dusk.
Following such formations came the murtis, transported by bicycles or trucks encrusted with paint and fake jewels, carried on bullock-carts or camels, in the buckets of wheelbarrows or balanced on the heads of the devotees themselves. Crowds lined the streets to watch the procession pass. Among the spectators, adolescent boys drenched in sweat danced ecstatically, their thighs and shoulders held square to the ground, as girls and women watched and laughed from windows or balconies above the street.
As I stood watching, I was pulled into a knot of dancers between a foot procession and a slow-moving truck. They shouted at me, their words slurred and excited. Grabbing handfuls of my shirt, they pulled me along with them, bouncing up and down, colliding in a cloud of sweat and mingled breath. We jumped and danced and wrestled together to music that came from speakers everywhere, from the trucks, from stores and canopies. One of the boys fell shivering to the ground, staring wildly into the night above him. He writhed in the dust as the truck rolled toward him. His friends pleaded with him to stand up and get out of the way, then reached down and pulled him aside as the truck’s tires ground along the pavement where he’d just been. Most of the boys continued dancing, but two drew me out of the street to talk to me.
“Hello, Jantaman.” They smiled. I smiled back.
We talked in mingled Hindi and English, our accents so different that either language was difficult for any of us to understand. In fact, it was even impossible for us to figure out each other’s names. They called me “Jantaman,” a word I was unfamiliar with.
As the truck shuddered past us, we turned to watch. The back was open, and a man crouched next to a large statue of Ganesh was passing out handfuls of sugar-candy prasad to the spectators.
“Ah, Ganesh. You know?” asked one of the boys.
“Yes,” I nodded. “Ekadent,” I said, giving one of Ganesh’s many other names. “Shri Ekadent,” I repeated, gesturing to show a tusk being broken off from my face. Ekadent means, literally, “One Tooth,” a reference to Ganesh’s missing tusk.
“Very good, Jantaman, very good!”
The boys laughed and led me away by the hand. This was one of the small, mundane miracles of Durga Puja, and of India as a whole — that a stranger, a foreigner, could be embraced so quickly and easily, and that the daunting complexity of its culture could begin to melt in the warmth of friendliness.
Of course their interest in me was due in part to curiosity. I was the exotic foreigner. I possessed entertainment value by sheer virtue of my novelty. Moments like this were a sort of reverse tourism: I afforded them a glimpse of the strange and mysterious West.
“Smoke?” One of them made a quick gesture with his hands, pantomiming a drag from a cigarette. They wanted to see if I’d like to split a pack of cigarettes. When I said no, that I didn’t smoke, their faces fell. By refusing the invitation to smoke, I had inadvertantly refused a wider invitation: to sit and talk as best we could, while we watched the festival around us. Little moments like this were constantly occuring. Although I spoke some Hindi, and many I met spoke at least some English, there was a deeper, cultural language I often failed to understand.
“Pan masala?” I asked. They looked at me, unsure of what I’d said.
“You like pan masala?” asked one of them skeptically.
At this they laughed and broke into wide grins. Pan masala is a mixture whose chief ingredient is shavings of the betel nut, a mild narcotic with about the same kick as a cigarette. It is viewed as an old-fashioned, yokelish custom. Smoking cigarettes, particularly machine-rolled ones, seems much more modern, and hence Western, in most eyes. The picture of a white American chewing pan never failed to amuse.
One of them ducked into a shop and came back shortly with a packet of pan masala. This particular brand was cut with chewing tobacco, a vice I’d never acquired. I smiled and popped a large pinch in my mouth. Soon, my mouth was overflowing with thick, blood-red saliva which, as is the custom, I spat onto the street.
Talking a little, chewing on betel, we followed the general current of the crowd down through the old city of crumbling buildings and narrow alleys to the riverbank. The wide, flat river gleamed in the night, stained by the lights of the city and the orange and yellow lights of the processions. It was the Ganges, Ma Ganga. She had descended from Shiva’s brow, high on Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas, her waters tangled as Shiva’s matted hair. She had crossed through vast dust plains and crowded cities, joined and fattened by her sisters Yamuna and Saraswati. She rolled slowly past on her way to the sea, to lose herself as she merged at last with the boundless waters of the ocean.
At the river, we hired one of the long, thin boats clustered around the ghats, or bathing places, and climbed aboard as the poleman steered us out onto the dark water. About halfway to the other side, he stopped and held the boat steady as we watched the processions terminate at the worn stone ghats. Boatloads of young and boisterous men rowed the images out into the river and immersed them, with final prayers, in the black and silent water. Crafted for months, imbued with the presence of God, their purpose served, the statues were worthless now. Clay melted in the river, and the murtis returned to the mud.
The lights of the processions dissipated in a thin stain over the dark water. The others were talking to me, but I couldn’t pay enough attention to understand what they were saying. I slumped down into the boat. The chewing tobacco and the movement of the river had made me nauseous. My flesh seemed to undulate in rhythm with the flickering lights. Green waves of betel and tobacco gurgled through me. Strange paranoid thoughts began to tremble in my head. Reaching over, one of them began to pat my clothes. He took my camera from my pocket, where it had remained all evening until now.
“Ah, Jantaman, very good.” He held the camera up next to his face, smiling.
For many, the worship of Ma Durga ultimately reflects an interior struggle. One identifies with her through devotion, and gains the courage and strength of will to face terrible enemies. These foes are more likely to be aspects of ourselves, of our own personalities and behavior, than the flesh and blood monsters she faced. We are exiled in the wilderness of our lives, and the devotee seeks some measure of Durga’s strength to find his or her way through to contentment and understanding.
I shivered and gripped the sides of the boat out of a sudden fear that he was going to steal my camera, that they had brought me out onto this boat to beat me up and take whatever I had, my money and my passport, my shoes, my traveler’s checks, and dump me over the side into the dark river, like the murtis. Perhaps they’d even drown me. I was suddenly very tired, and felt like I needed to vomit. It was then that I realized all the camera meant to me.
The camera was a distancing device, one designed to keep me at a degree of remove from what was happening all around me, to preserve my role as an observer rather than a participant. It was a mark of money and privilege, an object of more wealth than many Indians would see in a lifetime. It was an emblem of power, of scientific detachment and literalness, an emblem of the West — of America — itself. It was just these things I had thought I’d left behind.
The boy smiled and handed the camera back to me. Just then, it started to rain. A few thin drops fell over my face and broke the flat surface of the river. Orange and yellow light shimmered on the dark water. Ma Durga had slain Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, and released the water he held in his gut to fall as rain upon the earth. The boy looked at me and smiled.
“Ah, Jantaman, the rain. The rain is very fine.”
When we finally left the boat, I could only stumble, my legs wouldn’t work. One of the boys put his arm around my shoulder and helped me up the bank from the river to a little square above the ghats. For a while I still couldn’t stand on my own. It seemed as though they wanted me to come somewhere with them, but it was difficult to tell for sure. Anyway, I was exhausted, too tired to go on any further, certain I had just enough energy to get back to my room.
I thanked them as best I could, and started back up the street the way we’d come. Walking the streets I was like a ghost, a barely seen, unsettling presence. I tried to follow the rise of the land up from the river but was at once terribly lost. I realized, too late, that I’d missed my turn and had been walking along a street perpendicular to the river. Now I had even farther to go. I began to backtrack. The crowd had thinned here, and the streets were nearly empty. The rain fell harder, enriching the Ganges. It was her own water, stolen from her, now returned. In her long journey from the Himalayas, on her way to the sea, much had been taken from her. Her water fed and bathed all those along her banks, it cleaned their laundry and accepted their refuse, it nurtured cattle, oxen, and packs of dogs. She gave her moisture to the very air, and purified the ashes of the dead burnt on her banks. Now the dark clouds were split open, what had been taken from her was restored, and the Ganges flowed wider on her way to the sea.
Above the streets, bleak windows stared outward. The houses stretched in long clustered rows like skulls hung from Kali’s hips. The night itself was Durga. She watched me with countless eyes as earlier she had moved through the crowd, laughing with countless voices, reaching with countless hands. Through her worship, the lost are restored to their way, the missing are made whole, the lonely are returned to those who love them. I had been wandering through the wilderness, not of India, not of the night, but of my own urge to lose myself, to erase what I knew of myself and see what was left. I had been poisoned by the desire to rub away friends, habits, comforts, family, life, to rub until I was clear. But I did not become clear; I was only rubbed away, bit by bit. There was simply less of me.
I wanted my small life back, wanted its small and familiar pleasures. I wanted what I had abandoned. I was scared, I’d slogged how many blocks and seemed no closer to the end. The streets there seemed nameless, none of them were familiar. I wanted to vomit, or cry, or simply curl asleep in the gutter.
Just then, a bicycle rickshaw lurched down the empty street from behind me, headed in the same direction. From out of the shadow of the hooded passenger bench came a voice:
I stared as the rickshaw came to a halt beside me. I peered in at the passengers in disbelief. They were, indeed, the same two boys I’d met at the start of the night. We rode up, back the way I’d come, squeezed together on the little bench. There was no way for me to explain to them what had happened, but it wasn’t necessary. The impossibility of the coincidence that had just occurred was evident to all of us.
For some reason, it only became clear to me during the heaving, shaky trip back up from the river what “Jantaman” meant. They were actually saying “gentleman,” using a polite form of address they must have learned at school.
Back in my hotel room, I stripped off my damp clothes and sank into bed. Ghosts stirred by the ceiling fan flitted through the dusty air. I watched the strange, tall window which looked out onto the hallway, beside the door to my room. It seemed to open onto a larger night than I had known before, a night that watched me as intently as I watched it.