City of Darkness…

For several years around the turn of the century, I went through a phase where I thought I was a poet rather than a  story teller.  During that time period, I went on three of my winter wanders.  One season I was in South America, another trip I was in India and another journey brought me to Southeast Asia.  As a result, three of the notebooks from my scribbly notebook collection of  world traveling adventures are filled with incomprehensible epic poetry rather than my normal rambling prose. Some of the stories from those trips are rather incredible and definitely worth sharing but, unfortunately, the only written versions I have are in the form of vague and confusing, poems.  What can I say, I was overly creative with form and messed up all the substance.  So now, here in the present (December 2015), I am attempting to transform those old confusing poems into brand new stories.  I like to think of it as the re-incarnation of words.  This week’s story is my first attempt at this process.  This real crazy story did  indeed happen to me (as best I can recall) in Varanasi, India.

CITY OF DARKNESS   (Varanasi, India; December 17, 2000)

What is the flavor of darkness? What is the scent? The sound?

I arrive at three in the morning, and darkness hovers around.

The train whistle blows as we pull into the station and I am greeted by a smoky platform and rushing crowds of people. The flow of humans moves in both directions simultaneously.  I hop from the train with my pack on my back and am immersed in the middle of the swarming masses.  Which way do I go? The crowd surges up the stairs and I am swept along.  Strange little men reach out to touch me and offer their services.  “Rickshaw sir, where you go?” “Rickshaw, Hotel, Rickshaw” “This way my friend, follow me.” There are tchai servers, peanut sellers, omelet makers and everything vendors. The lepers huddle in the stairwell and reach out their stumps as I pass.  “Rupee, rupee, rupee,” they say, over and over and over again.

Everywhere is bustle and squirm as the floor is covered with people sleeping in rags.  It is big mass of human flesh like a single living organism.  It is tough to decipher where one human ends and another begins. The odor of sweat mixes with roasted  peanuts and burning garbage. There is choking smoke and foul air. Don’t step in the shit… human shit, dog shit, chicken shit and shit from some undetermined species that I don’t even want to think about. How can there be so much shit inside the train station? Finally, the exit.

There is a tangled nest of rickshaws and drivers and people outside. “I need a rickshaw to the ghats,” I say.  “How much?” The ghats are separated sections of shoreline along the Ganges River.  That’s the area of the city where the cheap and good accommodation is supposed to be.  The rickshaw drivers shout out competing offers.  “Fifty rupee,” “Forty rupee,” “thirty rupee,”“Twenty rupee,” “Two for twenty rupee.”

I end up sharing a rickshaw with an English guy who is going to the ghats as well. His name is Jay.  He’s a  young stoner kid out in the world on his first ever traveling adventure.  We climb in the rickshaw and off we go.

The streets of the city are cold, smoky and dark. The only visible light glows forth from the occasional garbage fires. People in rags huddle around them trying to consume some heat. They pay no attention to us as we zoom past.  The whole city is like a movie set for a post apocalyptic horror film.  It doesn’t seem real at all.  Down at the ghats, smoky gloom hangs in the air.  Is that mist rising from the river or smoke from garbage fires?

The rickshaw stops and we get out. There is one tchai vendor doing early business.  He has a single light bulb under a blue tarp tent.  We stop for tchai and look at the guide book. “Lots of hotels along the ghats,” says Jay. “Yes,” I answer, “but is anything open yet?”

We walk along in the darkness.  The river is on our right and the old city is on our left. Water from the big wide river laps onto the stone steps of the ghats.  Plastic bags and dying flowers clutter the shoreline.  Early risers attempt to sell us their services. “Hello boat,”  “Hello boat,” “Tchai, tchai,” “You want shaving sir?”

But no hotels appear to be open yet. There are only dark buildings that look like imposing fortresses. Smoke and river mist hang together in the air. My lungs are thick and clogged. Cough, cough. It smells like shit; dog shit, cow shit, monkey shit, human shit. Don’t step in the shit. I have to watch my steps very carefully in the darkness. The hotels are all closed. Nothing is open because it’s too damn early. “The book says Shanti Guesthouse is open twenty four hours,” says Jay, “It’s by the burning ghats.” “Okay,” I say, “let’s go there.”

What is the flavor of darkness?What is the scent? The sound?

The burning ghats of  Varanasi are the darkest place around.

There is nothing to see now except smoldering fires and a few people. Not much action at this hour. Is this really where they burn people?  There are huge piles of wood.  It is all cut and chopped and ready to go. Smoke lingers everywhere… but it’s strange smoke.  It is the color of pale green-grey like no smoke I’ve ever seen before.  It is also choking and heavy and it burns the eyes. A sign points to Shanti Guesthouse. We go up the stairs to a mud path that curves around behind the temple. It is slippery and slimy and there are more piles of shit.

The sidewalk enters the maze of buildings. Turns left, then right, then left and around a circle.  It goes up some stone stairs. Wait; there are no more signs. We’re lost, shit. It’s a goddamn maze in the darkness.  How are we supposed to find anything? “What you look for?” says the Indian man who steps from the shadows. “The Shanti Guesthouse,” we say.  “Follow me,” he says.

The local man leads us through the darkness. To the left, to the right, under a tunnel, down a stairs and back to the ghats; the burning ghats and lingering foul grey-green smoke. We go back up a different set of stairs. There is a path to the left, then right, around a circle and then up more stairs. A light is on. The Shanti Guesthouse is open.

“No single rooms available,” says man at the front desk, “only doubles.” There is no place else to go so I have to share a room with the English guy, Jay.  It’s a crap room with no windows and it is very very dark.  It’s like a prison cell with a toilet down the hall.  Not surprisingly, it’s a squat toilet and the light bulb is blown. Oh well, it’s only for a day or two. I just need to rest after 50 some hours on a train. I put my bags down on one of the beds. I’ll move to a better place later.

Jay rolls a joint. He wants to get stoned and watch the sun rise. I’m not smoking now because I’m clean.  I am in the middle of my annual six week cleanse.  But I sure am tempted.  After that journey on the train and now in this place; I deserve a little weed.  But no; I have willpower. I can wait. But I will watch him and maybe catch a contact high. He smokes and it smells great; Manali cream…. straight from the source. I sure am tempted… but I’m freakin’ clean. No smoke for me.

What is the flavor of darkness? What is the scent? The sound?

The sun rises over the Ganges River, but still the darkness is around.

The sun is up now but there is still no light. I need to sleep, I need to rest. But I leave the room because I can’t sleep.  I am too tense… too exhausted… too wound up… too insane.  I think a short walk will help me relax.  But no; it doesn’t work.  I feel sick inside. Cough cough.  My lungs are foul. “Hello boat,” “postcard sir,”“rupee, rupee,” Beggars reach out their hands.

The Ganges; they say it’s a sacred river. Pilgrims come from all over India to bathe in its holy waters. It is as foul and polluted as a sewer but into the waters they wade.  I walk along the ghats and observe the scene.  The infinite entrepreneurs bombard me with their offers of service. “Tchai, sir,” “hello, boat,” “Shaving sir,”  “massage?” “Only ten rupee,” “twenty rupee,” “Very cheap price,”  “good quality sir,” “you want some?” Not now. I can’t. Please leave me alone. “Postcard sir,” “hello boat”“You want hash?” “Chinese opium?”“Good quality sir,”“Hash from Manali.”

No, not now. I need rest, I need sleep. I go back to the Shanti Guesthouse and the dark cell like room. I turn out the light and sleep away the afternoon.  But even in sleep there is no rest.  That is when the nightmares come.

Childhood memories and teenage memories flood my inner eye. There are friends and family who laugh and shout out with joy. Everything is perfect. Young adulthood comes next, followed by the real world.  But still, everything is good.  Nothing is wrong.  I am happy and successful. I am going places and doing what I’m supposed to do.  Everything is just fine. And then; the big break. What happens?

All is lost and I will never be the same again. The faces from my past are still there.  But now the faces are empty. They look at me with blank stares. My connection to others is severed, shattered, pulled apart. My nerves are frayed. I am now different, alone, set apart. I am one little speck… insignificant and unimportant but still alive.  I am tumbling into emptiness, falling into fear. Distant friends reach out but now they are not friends. They are only strange people, beggars, grabbers. They want and want and want. They take and take and take. But I have nothing left to give. Leave me alone, alone, alone…

What is the flavor of darkness?What is the scent? The sound?

I awake in the early evening and darkness drapes around.

My nose is clogged. My head is clogged. My lungs are clogged.  Cough, cough, sneeze. Blow nose and look at my handkerchief to see thick green slime. My stomach quakes and my bowels ache. Fuck; diarrhea is coming on. I rush down the hall to the dingy toilet. The light is still out.  I am squatting in the darkness. Life is shit and this is depressing.  I thought traveling was supposed to be fun. I clean up with the hose that dangles from the wall and then go outside.

The evening begins. Bells are clanging in the distance. Muslims are chanting on a loudspeaker somewhere. The streets are only as wide as sidewalks and they are packed full with vendors and carts and pedestrians and beggars. Tall buildings surround me. I feel like a rat in a maze. I am trapped. Which way do I go? Left, right, straight, up, down. I follow the flow of people and where do I end up?  The burning ghat.

The smoke is overwhelmingly intense. It is thick gray with pockets of pea soup green. I am directed to a platform that looks down from above.  “No photos please,” says the guard, “have respect please. It is spirit ceremony.” I look down below. There are three bonfires raging. One is flames, coals and ashes with no body left to be seen. Another has a partial corpse burnt through but still churning pea soup smoke. Another has a full corpse just catching flames. The body is wrapped in white cloth and it slowly starts to light. A fourth pyre is under construction. They build a pyramid of wood and straw. A body wrapped in bright orange cloth sits next to it on a platform. The body is slowly unwrapped until only white cloth remains. The body is placed carefully on top of the wood. More wood is added. The fire needs fuel…

The fires burn on two levels. One is closer to the river and one is closer to the temple. Several hundred people gather around the flames. There are no travelers allowed there. We have to keep a respectful distance. No women are allowed either. It is only the local men. They don’t speak much. They mumble amongst themselves. They chant quiet prayers. They smoke cigarettes and joints. They mull about and ponder while they stare at flames. The burning body of a friend turns to smoke. When the fire burns down and only ashes remain, they are scooped up and brought to a waiting boat. Out on the river, tiny flames dot the water.  Worshippers place candles on the water as puja offerings to Shiva and those floating candles are now there to welcome the ashes of the deceased friend. The boat paddles off shore into the river; into the floating flames.  The ashes go to the god of the river and the spirit goes to paradise…

I stand on a third level so I am above all the action.  But I am also in direct line of the smoke. There is a temple on each side of me. In one, the Sadhus gather to smoke reefer and make offerings to Shiva.   Behind me, the labrynthian maze of streets disappears into the old city.  Off to my left, flows the Ganges; floating off down towards the bridge and then to Calcutta and then the sea. Off to my right is the Ganges; it meandered here all the way from the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. And directly in front of me is the burning; the sacred burning. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, bodies will burn because they must. The Sadhu I met in New Delhi warned me that Varanasi would be like an acid trip. That trip can be good or bad.  It is a stimuli overload. Everything happens right here in your face; Shit, piss, madness and death…

Everything is still clogged; my nose, my head, my lungs. Sneeze, cough. Green slime exits the body. Green smoke rises from the burning pyres. A sickening sensation overwhelms my soul as the realization arises in my consciousness. Could it be? Is it? Cough, gag. Nausea.  A pasty film covers my teeth and gums. A horrid disgusting taste assaults my tongue, teeth and esophagus.  Running mucous occupies my nasal cavity. Death is inside of me and is exiting out my nose and mouth and asshole. Cough, gag, sneeze, cough. I must get out of here. I must get way from the ghats;  I must get away from the burning.

I turn from the spectacle and charge into the maze of narrow streets. I run up the stairs, turn left, then right and then left again. “Hello hashish,”  “good quality,”“Tchai sir, you want,”“Hello friend, you want something?” “Silk saree, postcard, Chinese opium?” Which way do I go? Turn right, then left and then right again. It’s this way, no, that way. “Tchai, sir, very good tchai, you want?” “No thank you,” I say, “Where am I?” “Shanti Guesthouse is there,” says the tchai man, “around next corner.” I make it back to my prison cell room and collapse into a restless sleep.

What is the flavor of darkness?What is the scent? The sound?

Madness reigns in the darkness; it’s where bad dreams are found.

Lots of empty, blank faces are staring at me. Lots of outstretched hands try to grab a hold of me. I am falling backwards, losing control… tumbling to where I do not know.  But I am tumbling towards something. I reach out my hand. I need help. Will someone grab a hold of my hand? I’m falling backwards. The hands reach out. But the faces are still blank. I reach back. I need help. I’m falling. I’m just out of reach. Falling into darkness… into emptiness… into nothingness…into death… decay… the rock bottom pit… Will someone please help? The blank empty faces reach out there hands. But I can’t quite touch. Our fingertips brush but do not grip. I’m falling, falling, falling….

I awake in the prison cell room. It’s morning in darkness town. I should get some breakfast.  All I need is a decent meal at a good restaurant and I will feel better.  I go into the maze to find one.  But it’s not so easy. I turn left, turn right, and go straight. Fuck…. I’m lost again.  But there has to be a restaurant somewhere. I keep walking.  There are more narrow streets and more alleyways and corners. People hustle past; lots of people. There are silk shops and incense shops. People are selling spices and jewelry and art and clothing. But there are no damn restaurants. I can’t find one. Somewhere there is a whole street lined with restaurants; but not here.  Here, there are only people and an infinite maze of streets and more people.

Finally, I see a street vendor selling pakoras. It’s probably risky on my dodgy stomach. But I have to eat something. I’m half way through the snack when a child approaches with outstretched hand.  There is still a good size piece left so I offer it to him.  “No,” he says, “I want rupee.” I finish eating and start walking again.

I do have a plan for the day: a destination. My meander is not meaningless.  I need new eyeglasses because mine are falling apart. Supposedly, Varanasi has good cheap optometry. All I have to do is find it. But of course, I can’t. It seems somehow symbolic of all human experience.  Here I am lost in the labyrinth; trapped in the human swarm as I try to find my way to the vision store. I am passed on the streets by beggars and Sadhus; Brahmans and merchants; Muslims in skull caps and Buddhists in monk robes. The vast range of Indian ethnicity surrounds me. There are spice vendors and tchai sellers; silk merchants and tailors.  It seems as if everything in the world is for sale here. “Hashish…. Good quality?”“Chinese opium?” “Brown sugar?  Very best quality.” But I can’t find what I’m looking for. I can’t even find my way back. Where am I? The streets zig and zag and curve and circle. I emerge from the narrow lanes and find myself on a main road. Which main road? It is a super congested traffic and people jam. Where am I? How do I get back to the ghats? It’s getting late. I’ve walked all day. The sun is setting and I am lost. “Rickshaw!  Rickshaw!” I shout and wave my hands in desperation. Finally, one sees me and motors over. “How much to the ghats?”  I ask.  Rickshaw man answers with a devious smile “Twenty rupee.”

I arrive back at the ghats along the shoreline just in time for sunset. This right here is the epicenter of darkness town. Bells ring and the music starts. A man’s voice sings Hindu words. The sound is enchanting and beautiful. It seems as if some type of puja ceremony is beginning. Down by the water, eight platforms are set up. A young man dressed in orange robes stands on each platform. There are candles burning and flowers and incense. The crowds of people stand back from the platforms. Bells clang and the crowds sing along with the enchanting Hindu hymn. The young men on the platforms are Brahman priests.  They pick up burning torches and they move in sync by slowly circling the torches along with the Hindu hymn. It is a prayer or dance of some kind. They are making an offering to Shiva… When the hymn is complete, the people in the crowd go to the platforms and receive flowers from the priests. They put the flowers in a leaf along with a lit candle and place the offerings in the river. Hundreds of tiny flames go afloat on the water.  It is beautiful beyond words. I walk along the ghats following the floating candles downstream in the darkness….

What is the flavor of darkness? What is the scent? The sound?

I return to the burning ghats; the craziest show in town.

This time I approach from the river. I am on the same level as the fires. It is a side view here, not a top view. But still, I must keep a respectful distance. There are stairs to the left that lead to a temple. If I sit up there, I’ll have a good look. I climb the stairs and sit on the top step. A Hindu man comes up there after me.

“Hello friend, how are you?” he says.

“Fine, fine,” I respond, “please leave me alone.”

“You want hashish,” he says, “I have good quality.”

“No thank you,” I respond.

“Chinese opium?”

“No thank you,” I say, “I just want to sit and watch.”

“No photos, Sadhus will get mad,” he says.

“I know, I know.”

“You like burning ghats?” he says.

“Yes, yes, it’s very interesting,” I answer.

“But do you know what is happening?”

“Yes, yes, I read about it in the guide book.”

“It’s all about the eternal fire,” he says.

“What eternal fire?” I question.

“It burns in the temple, my friend, and it is very interesting,” he says. “Really my friend, I speak truth. See that temple, right there.” He points to one of the temples. “Inside that temple there is a fire and that fire has been burning for five thousand years. It never goes out, Understand?”

“Five thousand years?” I say, “No way, that can’t be.”

“Yes, yes friend; that is truth. And every time a body is burned they start the fire with an ember from same sacred fire.  Understand?”

“Yes, yes,” I say, “I get it. That is incredible.”

“The job of bringing the ember and starting the fire is the job of eldest son,” he says. “First, he must shave his head and then he must purify himself with fasting. He lights fire and the body burns. The ashes are saved for three weeks in the temple. During that time, the young man, eldest son, does not leave his house. No market, no work, no nothing. When three weeks pass, young man returns to temple. He lights another fire to honor Shiva and then takes the ashes out to the Ganges. After ashes spread in the water; big celebration. Dead person reach Nirvana. Understand?”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” I say. “Thank you very much. I didn’t know.”

“Your welcome friend,” he says, “Now pay me twenty rupee for guide service. Understand?”

I pay the man his baksheesh and then turn away to blow my nose. My head is clogged again. It has to be from the smoke. Thick green slime inside my body tastes like death itself. I must escape. I must go somewhere, anywhere. I rush down the temple steps and up the back staircase by the woodpile. There’s that slippery mud path again and then the sidewalk. A single light bulb illuminates some of the small shops. Only candles light up others. Up the pathway, a procession comes towards me. They are singing a Hindu hymn. I step aside to let them pass. It’s a funeral procession. Four young men carry a stretcher and on the stretcher is a body wrapped in bright orange cloth. They nearly bump me as they pass. Death is everywhere. I can’t escape it. It’s in my face. I must go, I must get away. I continue walking up the dimly lit sidewalk past the vendors and the shops and  the dope dealers. There, up ahead, I see the Shanti Guesthouse again. My prison cell room awaits…

What is the flavor of darkness? What is the scent? The sound?

Another night of restless sleep; dreaming in darkness town.

The place of ultimate terror is the time of the in between.  It is that primordial darkness where the choice of living is made. After death and before rebirth, there is a moment. No one knows how long the moment lasts. Some say days; others say weeks; some say forever because there is no rebirth. That moment is darkness. It is the core of confusion when anything is possible and everything is possible. Heaven? Hell? Or something else? It feels like falling, tumbling… into emptiness and nothingness. I see the blank faces and the outstretched hands. They are just out of reach.  I can’t quite touch. Do I want to touch? Do I want to grab a hold and be born again to a new life? Or just keep falling, falling, falling…

“Hey man, wake up. Wanna go for a sunrise boat ride?”

“Huh? What?” I open eyes and see that the light is on and Jay is rolling a joint.

“It’s almost sunrise,” he says, “I’m getting a boat. Wanna go?”

I sit up and rub my eyes.  “Sure, why not,” I answer.

We exit the Shanti  Guesthouse into the pre-dawn streets. A few candles light up Tchai stands. A few people huddle around. We stop for tchai.  It is sickly sweet in clay cups. The alley is lit by candles. The locals are friendly. We finish the tchai and smash our biodegradable clay cups on the ground. That’s the way the locals do it. Way better than plastic.  We walk the narrow lanes and go down the steps to the river. “Hello boat?” says the man. “How much?” we ask. “Fifty rupee each, one hour,” he says. “Fifty rupee total, one hour,” we answer. “Okay,” he says.

We walk down to the water’s edge and step carefully on to the wobbly boat. I take a seat near Jay and Boatman pushes us off shore and starts paddling.  The dawn boat ride on the Ganges begins.

It’s early morning light now.  There’s no sun yet. It’s light blue with a hovering gray mist. We move upstream and away from the burning ghat. We go towards the puja action. The faithful have come to bathe in the river. Men, women, young, old; they climb down the steps of the ghats in the cool morning air; say a prayer to Shiva and then plunge into the polluted river. There are so many of them with so much devotion it is impossible to comprehend. We continue upstream and the sky turns pink. A strange mystical light reflects on the walls of the old buildings. It seems ancient; mythological, fantastical. This place has been here forever. Our boat is approached by another. They pull in close and grab a hold of us. “Postcards?  Puja candles? You want something?” they say. “No, thank you,” we answer, “let us go.”

The sales boat releases us and moves away with the current. We continue paddling upstream watching the bathers; and the garbage; and the morning light on the old city. The boatman turns us around, Jay lights a joint and we head downstream. The boatman relaxes now. This part of the trip is easy. We just float and watch the scenery. Sacred river or sewer? Holy city or shit hole? A question of perspective.

“Sometimes,” says the boat man, “we can see a floating dead body on this Ganges River. Sadhus no have money for burning so they tie stones to their bodies with rope and sink them to the bottom.   But the rocks don’t always hold and the bodies float up to the surface.”

We are almost back to the burning ghat now. When the sun peaks over the horizon, a ray of orange shoots across the water and lights up the shoreline. Suddenly, in the water up ahead, I see something and point.

“Maybe it’s a dead Sadhu,” says the boatman.  He takes another paddle in the direction I am pointing. The orange ray of sunshine flashes exactly upon the spot in the water.

“That’s no dead Sadhu,” says the boatman.

It rises up out of the waves and leaps into the air with an expression of absolute JOY.  And then, it splashes down and disappears.  It is the most beautiful creature at the absolute perfect moment.

“Yes, Yes,” says the boatman. “That is dolphin, we have those in Ganges River too.”

“Not just dolphin,” I say out loud, “a dead Sadhu and a Dolphin.”  As I witness a transformation in the rising Varanasi sun…

What is the flavor of darkness? What is the scent? The sound?

A signal from Somewhere has come to me so I escape from darkness town.

——————–

If you like this story, perhaps you want to buy one of my books.

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