NIGHT TRAIN TO VARANASI
My mom buys second-class tickets on the night train to Varanasi and we bring only what we need for a few days, leaving most of our belongings at the rented room in Lucknow.
“We’ll sleep the whole way and wake up ready to go,” she tells me. “Sleeping on a train is the best! It rocks you to sleep, just like a baby.”
When we board the train it is already late and I’m yawning like crazy, clutching my newly purchased Archie’s comic books. You can buy these at most train stations and street kiosks in India and they’re my newest preteen love and addiction.
“We must be in the wrong car,” my mom says as we board the train. Lining one wall is a long bench stuffed with people and their belongings. They spill over into the aisle so that we can barely pass. On the other side of the train cabin, bunk bed-like platforms hang from the walls on chains, straining under the weight of entire families that eat, sleep, snore and chatter. We look around and there’s not one inch of available space. “No, this must be the wrong cabin,” my mom confirms.
I follow her, stepping carefully over people and stuff until we find someone dressed in uniform.
“Excuse me. We were sent to the wrong place.” My mom holds out our tickets to the uniformed man who studies them and then wiggles his head, up, down and side-to- side like a bobble head. In India, everyone does this and it can mean “yes,” “no” “maybe” and everything in between.
“No, Ma’am. This is very much the correct place for you.” He continues to wiggle his head, giving us a wide smile.
“But we’re supposed to have beds.” She holds out the tickets again as if this will
make things clearer.
The man points at the platforms hanging from the wall.
“But there’s no room.”
“You must be finding room, Ma’am.”
“Can’t we change our tickets? Upgrade?”
The train begins moving.
“It is too late Ma’am. Please be finding your seats,” he says, smiles, and walks
My mom holds the tickets up to the light and reads the seat numbers, mumbling to herself. Zombie-like, I follow her as we make our way back to the cluster of people. Finally, she locates my bed. A sadhu with a long, grey beard, a turban on his head, and nothing but dhoti cloth covering the lower half of his body, is stretched out on my bed snoring.
“Excuse me,” she says, leaning over him.
He continues to lie there as still as a corpse except for the loud rumblings that exit through his open mouth.
“Excuse me,” she shakes him gently. He opens his eyes a little and then goes back to sleep. She looks at me. My eyes are fluttering and I’m so tired I could fall asleep standing up. Placing both hands on the sadhu, she begins shaking him vigorously until he finally opens his eyes and looks directly at her. “I’m sorry but this is our bed and my daughter’s very tired,” she says pointing at the ticket and then at me. He lies there for a minute, still and staring at her. She holds his gaze. Finally he sits up and slowly lumbers off.
She puts down her shawl, smoothing it across the bed and places our bag filled with clothing near the wall. I lay on the palate and my mom sits beside me, stroking my hair as the train rocks me to sleep. Just like a baby.
In Varanasi we stay in a hotel near the Ganges River, which most people, including my mom, call “The Ganga.” There is a huge dirt field between our hotel and the river, and when we wake up in the morning and look outside, there are tons of people squatting in the dirt taking their morning poop, using small buckets of water from the river to clean themselves by wiping backwards with left hands.
Down at The Ganga, thousand of people perform morning rituals: praying and scooping handfuls of water over their heads, brushing their teeth, and washing clothes and children. The water is brownish grey, foamy and smells putrid. My mom gets in the river to her ankles and puts some sacred water in a glass jar to take home with her. Back home in Maui, we’ve had a bottle of it on our altar since she came to India two years ago. It looks like it’s growing alien babies.
“Don’t you want salvation?” my mom asks, smiling as she walks back towards me through the mucky shore.
“There’s no way I’m touching that nasty water.”
According to our guidebook, The Ganga is one of the most heavily populated river basins in the world and over 400 million people use it. It’s insanely polluted but also extremely sacred and Hindus believe that The Ganga can purify their sins. The best thing a Hindu can hope for is to die in Varanasi and be cremated along the banks of The Ganga or, second best, have their ashes thrown into it. They believe that this is their ticket to salvation.
At night, my mom hires a canoe-like boat to bring us past The Great Cremation Ground, also knows as the burning ghats. As our boatman dips a paddle into the dark water, I think I see a body float by. I clutch my mom’s arm and tell her this and the boatman explains that when families can’t afford to cremate their deceased loved ones, they often put them in the river so that they can be sure to float to salvation. I feel a shiver run through my body despite the sticky hot night, but as we glide across this dark river of salvation, past the cremation fires, my eyes can’t resist searching through the flames for burning bodies. All I see is smoke and light.
The next day we walk through the streets of Varanasi. The air is thick with exhaust fumes and competing music. Political propaganda blares from speakers in shops and is rigged to the roofs of trucks. Cars, motorcycles and mopeds, bicycle rickshaws, people and cows fight to move forward. There doesn’t appear to be any lanes or natural flow to the traffic even though a uniformed police officer stands on the concrete pedestal in the middle of it all, attempting to direct with white-gloved hands and a whistle. Everyone ignores him.
Following my mom is my only salvation; she parts the sea of chaos with her refusal to move out of the way. “I make my own rules, blaze my own path,” she always says. A young Indian man, maybe a teenager—so small and skinny he looks like a boy— pedals his rickshaw up beside us. He and my mom begin haggling a price as we continue to walk. His teeth and eyes glow in contrast to his dark face and his voice dips and rises like dry valleys. His background symphony—the brain-piercing, high-pitched female voices that sing traditional Indian and popular Bollywood music—blares from a hole-in-the-wall chai and sweet shop.
Finally he stops pedaling and jumps off his bike, helping my mom and I lug our tired bodies onto the plastic seat of his carriage. He gets back on his bicycle, exerting his full weight down on the pedals. We are on a slight hill and the rickshaw doesn’t budge. He tries and tries until it’s clear that we aren’t going anywhere. My mom starts to get up but he holds up his hand, jumping off the bicycle. “Please do not be going anywhere, Ma’am. I will be taking very good care of you.”
Bracing his bare feet against the ground he begins to push and slowly we move forward. When he builds up enough momentum, he jumps back onto the bike and pedals furiously, sweat pouring down the sides of his face. He stays upright, pushing all the power of his legs into the pedals until his sinewy muscles strain against their fleshy encasement.
My mom tells him to stop the bike. He brings the carriage to a halt. She hops down, motioning for him to get into the seat beside me. The young man looks confused and then horrified as she begins to usher him off the bike and climbs on.
“No, no, Ma’am. Please no.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll still pay you,” she smiles, encouraging him. “Get in.”
He refuses, begging her to get off the bike. She starts to pedal and the young man is forced to back away.
“Jump in!” she calls to him.
“No, Ma’am. Please!” he pleads, jogging as the rickshaw moves faster.
She slowly raises her arms like wings.
“Look! No hands,” she calls back to me, her long hair flying out behind her girl-sized body.
The young man is running, hands pressed together in prayer, begging her to stop, and I am holding on for dear life, laughing like crazy.
Shay Belisle is originally from Maui, Hawaii where she grew up eating mangoes and bathing in an outdoor bathtub in a ginger thicket. She has traveled much of the world and currently lives in Berkeley, CA where she works as a personal chef and is a degree candidate for her MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College. Shay is also the Creative Nonfiction Contributing Editor for the forthcoming issue 14 of 580 Split. Her work has been published in various literary journals including Forty Ounce Bachelors and The Writing Disorder.