No Whitney in Varanasi
About a week ago in California, icon and American music legend Whitney Houston died. Hers was a life ravaged by addiction and abuse. It will be picked apart by critics and journalists more practiced than I and I’ll leave them to it. Suffice it to say no one should die at 48, it is sad on so many levels that it happened and I hope she has finally found peace.
What it isn’t? Life changing.
Not here anyway.
In Varanasi, India no one is waving her posters or quoting her lyrics. No one is is screaming her name or even humming her songs. Not one maimed beggar or incense waving priest asked me, “If I’d heard.”
If not for my connection to Twitter, Facebook and friends back home, her death might’ve gone completely unnoticed by me for a few days more.
As it was I got the news through an email from a friend who only mentioned the fact in passing and the original focus of her email was so much more personal and important to me that it never occurred to me to dig deeper. For hours I forgot about it until a tweet crossed my screen and I remembered and then, because I’ve lived years of an Entertainment Tonight infused, CNN updated and TMZ inundated life I caught myself starting to do what we do – tell someone. The kids don’t know her so I looked up from my phone and started to mention it to Ish and our guide but I stopped.
The scene around me stole my attention instead.
We are in Varanasi. Although it is one of the country’s most visited spots, Varanasi is not the hip and trendy Delhi or reborn Mumbai. It is not the romantic Rajasthan. It is not the tropical Kerala. Varanasi is hard. It is gritty and dirty and real.
People live all aspects of their lives here on the streets. They believe in the final salvation offered by the river Ganges and that their city was created on a God’s trident. When you visit you have no choice but to be present; pulling the kids out of the path of oncoming traffic, delicately stepping around piles of cow dung, offering a namaste or hasty “No Thanks” in Hindi to suggestions you buy an elongated Ghandi figurine or kama sutra emblazoned bowl.
Poverty and spirituality run hand and hand in this part of India. Hindus dominate but Muslims and Christians are here too. In neighbouring Sarnath you’ll find the intriguing and intricate Jain temples but Buddhism is king. It is here, they say, that Buddha – the original one – delivered his first sermon to five disciples. The town is a pilgrimage site for devotees and the feelings of peace are palpable the moment you enter.
There are plenty of the familiar Western distractions here as well. Plywood shop stalls boast the same coca cola ad – a long-haired Indian girl, her head tilted just far enough to sip from the bottle in her hand – on shopfront after shopfront. Her cosmo clothes and airbrushed skin stand in sharp contrast to the people wandering in and out of the shop or pulling Oxen out front but no one seems to notice.
But above all it is India itself that will keep your attention: Shopkeepers able to call out to you in English, Spanish, Italian and French with the suggestion that you should come in to their shop, “Just looking madame. No cost for that.”
And it doesnt end at sundown. We sat on the River Ganges and watched the living continue into the night.
We saw a half dozen cremation fires light up the sky; the smoke billowing and spilling the secrets of those in mourning. We saw dead dogs that no worshipper seemed to notice and temples lit by candles and priests in epiphany. We saw elderly women fall to their knees in worship and use the walls to assist them in the ascent. We heard the calls coming from rows of beggars awaiting the nightly influx of tourists who give out rupees in the 10s and 20s as opposed to the thrifty ones and twos of well seasoned locals. We saw boys jumping from boat to boat offering up tiny candles and we watched how when lit they floated dutifully along the water carrying the prayers of the sender out to sea.
It seems that the high drama, non-stop attention that accompanies the death of a celebrity is truly a North American construct.