The concept of tourism in here is much close to what Englishmen had in their pre-47 colonial clubs. Grass is green and daily cut, power supply is guaranteed by ad hoc generators, people are nice, calm, relaxed while sipping their teas and reading the Times. Nothing leads to think that outside the door there is the most chaotic city of India. It’s like a drop of Europe in the Ganges river.
Once in Varanasi it’s difficult to resist the desire to see the famous Manikarnika Ghat: the main burning ghat for hindu. Maybe “desire” is too much, especially after three weeks when Indian culture shown to be ancestral, static, yet not so interesting. But still, when you are in here, just size the more you can. So did I. I was wondering what could I see that might move me. Suffering, death, sorrow… Didn’t work. I saw burning corpses on pyres. It’s not just the sight, it’s the context. All paria standing there and performing their everyday job, not caring at all others’ suffering. How could they? They see and hear every single day the same cry. The same prayers. How could they participate to this suffering?
Man stood in front of the pyre, apparently praying and pronouncing their last goodbyes to their dead relative, friend. They prayed silently. Their voices covered by the heat of the fire, by the sound of paria carrying chops. By the sight of a burning body. No women around. No suttee, at least. One Indian man, a paria, tells us it’s better without, because they cannot hold their sorrow. They are noisy. We nod, but we know the story is much different. And for barbaric that it might seem not to let a wife crying her husband at his funeral, it is much less barbaric than what the real story tells us would happen if women were allowed to get close to pyres. And I am pleased only men are around.
Sad as it gets, after a few words spent on their traditions, and a short walk over the ghat, the paria asks for a donation. Cannot say it was unexpected, though. Just sad.
Heading back to my hotel I thought about Varanasi and the whole India I have seen. I reconsidered both good and bad sides. I reflected on my previous considerations, when India let me down. I reflected on my hope for them to change as time went by. As I was climbing up the stairs to the terrace, I turned my head to the river and I felt I confirmed them all.
I have never been in any place where men’s word was so poorly considered. Holding on to oneself’s promises is so underrated here that claiming someone’s a lier is not even considered an offence. It is merely a bargaining gergal expression!
“Trust me sir, this price does not even cover my costs”
“Of course I don’t trust you! You lier, that’s about four times the fair price”
And no one gets frustrated or offended.
It happened that I was on waiting list for a train’s seat. A pretty long journey. And I could not miss the train! I phoned the tourist office that made the reservation (it can be very hard and time expensive to get a reservation for a tourist) and I was told not to worry, my seat was guaranteed. Of course my answer was “I do worry, as I would never ever believe a single word you say without an official script”. Fate is useless with Indians. You always have 100% probability to be right when you distrust them. I did not get my seat, indeed.
I came to think that the perceived distance between Europeans and locals is much higher from their views than ours. We are so far from their everyday-life that we don’t matter as individuals, but only as aggregate amount of money-holders that comes and goes. Thus a promise made to us is not even a promise. It’s like an atheist praying to God. He might seem as sincere as religious people, but he does not care about any of the words he is pronuncing. And he does not think he’s doing anything wrong if he prays something stupid or blasphemous, since no God is there to be offended. As soon as his words are spoken, they vanish, as no one heares them. No one can ask him to respond of his prayers. Same way, no tourist could ever expect an Indian to hold on his promises. If he wants to, he does it. Deliberately.
In some unusual and specific cases, such as the one I am about to tell, you can become a “potential friend” of an Indian. That changes everything. For those living in streets, where streets represent the place you belong to more than the city, for those used to have no privacy among relatives and not much with neighbourghs too, well, for them, if you start the process of becoming a friend, you start the process of becoming a person. Still, here “friend” is a word I can hardly define. It is used much lightly when it comes to start a conversation with tourists, but it seems to be used lightly also when there is more to share. I guess this is because family oriented clans have those that we call “friends” within the family. In case they are outside it, these become “friend-brothers”. Well, it seems being “friend” is not much, though, but that’s wrong. It meens that the person have the sincere intention to be open with you and whishes to share something. I was in this situation in Agra, when playing carambole and chess with Alessandro, G. and S. We were in their shop, in the middle of a random, poor and genuinely Indian area. People are much nicer when tourist never appear at their doors. Still, G. gave me and Alessandro a souvenir. A chitch, very ugly souvenir. But it’s nice to keep it, though. Of course, he asked for something back to be sent from Italy. He did not seem to consider the profit coming out from that request. Nor the fact that it would have been much nicer not to have asked. It’s in their blood. When Karma says what goes around comes around, they help the time frame between going and coming to be as short as possible and interest rates to be very high, too!
Still he wanted me to say I would have. I am not sure if that was because he knew we recognise a higher value to our promises, or because – as “friends” – we are expected to keep our words. Latter option seems more reasonable. I’ll soon know, anyway.