Varanasi on fire

di Valerio Gori

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.