I knew it. I just knew it, like I always do. As I boarded the train from Agra to Varanasi, a crowded 12-hour train with mysterious looking bugs crawling across my feet, I took one look at the men surrounding us and I just knew. Before the train had even left Agra Fort station, I had already grabbed the money belt and transferred all our money and cards into it in the privacy of the S1 sleeper car bathroom. The only things left in my purse were my wallet, iPhone, portable charger, a few knick-knacks, my teal notebook and the beautiful emerald ring my mom bought me in Kerala (which I’m of course the most upset about). I waited an hour or so until the curious looking men had fallen asleep so I could get some shuteye but I was on alert; my eyes blinked open the moment I heard them get up for their stop.
The train reached Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, around two in the morning, leaving the train pretty empty for the remaining six hours of travel east. Herag, a friend from home travelling with me, and I, shifted beds to the lower section where we could spread out and have more legroom. As he drifted off to sleep, a weird feeling in my stomach wouldn’t let me rest. “How wrong were we about those guys?” Herag said before laying down to rest. But for some reason, I knew it wasn’t them I should have feared. They were the warning. They were the message telling me to stay alert. A few hours passed. I stretched, stared out the window and shifted from seat to seat to get my blood flowing, all while noticing a young, 20-something year old man, dressed in an army patterned green shirt and blue jeans kind of mimicking my actions. Stretching, pacing the cart, specifically pacing past our seats multiple times with his gaze burning into my back when I was turned away from him. He didn’t look like a threat. He had a friendly face. I think I even smiled at him when our eyes met once as he passed. The sun was about 20 minutes from hitting the horizon. I sat beside sleeping Herag while looking out the window at the landscape we were passing; huge open fields filled with water trying to sink into the soil below from the heavy rains during the night. The scene was actually quite eerie. As we passed, I noticed men in the fields walking with flashlights. With dawn a few moments away and the starlight sparkling in the water resting on the fields while black figures moved about quite scattered with small yellow lights, the stillness in the air and creepy scenery made a chill go up my spine. Then, in the blink of an eye, the army shirt man jumped into our seat section to snatch my purse and ran towards the door of the S1 cart, jumping off onto the tracks. Unfortunately for me the train was moving slow enough for him to jump off and not hurt himself but fast enough to not have the opportunity to run and catch him. “HEY!” I yelled, jumping to my feet. My yell alerted the sleeping men in the cart who instantly sprang from their seats to notice what was happening. A man closest to the door actually reached out and almost caught him but he was too quick. My heart pounded. It all happened so fast. I just couldn’t believe it.
An older, round man with a friendly and fatherly face came to check on me. He was in the section of seats beside us and was the first to jump from his seat in an attempt to save my purse. “Are you okay?” he asked in Hindi. “I’m okay. Only my mobile is gone, I have my money.” He smiled and continued to console me in Hindi before heading back to his seat to rest. The rush, the thrill of the whole situation left me in a state of giggles. I’m sure it slightly creeped Herag out. I couldn’t believe how right, once again, my intuition was. It never seems to fail me. Passports, safe. Money, safe. Cards, safe. We couldn’t sleep the rest of the journey, which still consisted of about six hours at that point. My guard was up. The trust I automatically give to each person that comes my way instantly vanished, I felt it leave my heart and I don’t think it will ever again return. Unfortunately this is strike three for my safety being threatened while here in mother India...
It’s been three days since it happened and I’m still up at night thinking about it. How long was that man watching me? When did he get on the train? Where was he headed? What if I was sleeping? I sleep with my purse attached to me. How would he have done it? He was clearly on a mission to grab that beautiful little leather purse (I miss it more now that I think about it). The moments before it happened haunt me. It wasn’t like I got hurt or that he really affected my trip or life in any way. I’m fine. All he got was material items and now I have an excuse to buy a new phone but it was something about the quiet that suffocated me while staring out at those dark fields filled with water and the ghostly looking scattered flashlights moving about. My heart began racing before it even happened, before I even felt the intense gaze of that desperate men burning into the back of my skull. I knew it was going to happen hours before it did and I’ll never forget how I felt before and after. A part of me is thankful that it happened though because now I have a reason to be more alert and learn to protect myself and my stuff in case anything like this, or worse, happens again.
When we arrived in Varanasi, it was hot as hell. The humidity made your skin instantly sticky and forehead drip with droplets of sweat. Varanasi Junction is in the middle of Varanasi and quite a distance from the ghats, where most guesthouses, hostels and hotels sit. With four bags and two instruments in hand (Herag bought a sitar – how cool right?!), we walked the one-kilometre from where the rickshaw dropped us off to Hotel Alka, through the narrow market and down to the Ganges. Our shirts soaked up the sweat our pores spilled out having to walk up and down half a meter thick steps, dodging slow moving tourists and locals offering us boat rides and marijuana but, we finally made it. Check-in was immediately followed by a shower, downing one-litre of mineral water and inhaling lunch (and one very large coffee for myself).
It’s been heavily raining in Varanasi since our first blessing on the Dashashwanegh Ghat, watching the holy ceremony held each evening at sunset. The air is slightly humid but cool and the entire city has been bathed by the early rains of monsoon season. My only purchase so far has been a japa malas, meditation beads used in both Hinduism and Buddhism (which inspired the rosary, worn by devoted Christians and Roman Catholics). I was surprised I didn't own one already. The rest of our time here has included eating delicious, rich foods, chatting with locals, reading, writing and listening to music. It may sound boring but in such a beautiful and Holy city, everything you do is exciting (plus the rain is actually an extreme, torrential downpour). There is something beautiful about all the rain though. Just staring out from the balcony of the hotel across the Ganges to the sandy beach area of Katesar, where devote Hindus pace by foot or on horseback to and from the Ganges, is something you could gaze out at for hours and feel calmness wash over you.
In the early afternoon, when the rain began to soften, we took a walk to Manikarnika Ghat, otherwise known as the burning ghat, where Hindus who live and die in Varanasi are brought to be cremated, or those who walk miles from their cities and villages with their dead loved one to cremate them on the day of their passing (FYI - you can ONLY be cremated in Varanasi if you die in the Holy city or are brought to the Holy city on the day of your passing). Varanasi is the holiest city in the world for a Hindu and one of the oldest cities in India, dating back around 3500 years to the Mughal period. As we stood by the lower ghats, where the lower castes are cremated, closest to the Ganges, silence consumed us as a group of men carried a body to a pile of wood. As they placed the body on the pile, the youngest son circled his dead father five times then placed a pile of burning sticks in the centre of the built up wooden logs. The fire quickly began to consume his body.
We walked up to the top of the ghat to see the infamous and eternal flame of the Shiva fire burning while the rain spat around it. The family living there on the ghat keeps the fire burning all day long and it has been continuing to burn for more than 3500 years now (it is said to have been originally lit by Lord Shiva). As I looked over to my left, I noticed a young 20-something year old boy in a white lungi and with a recently shaved head; this indicating that he is the eldest son of his recently deceased father. We met each others gaze and I saw his anger, as his silent tears rolled out from the corners of his eyes. I put my hands together in prayer, closing my eyes; he hesitated but mimicked my actions then slowly looked towards the Ganges with tension in his stance. “Let’s go,” I said to Herag. We walked down the steps and back towards our hotel, me now with a tear in the corner of my eye.
You aren’t allowed to take photos on the Manikarnika Ghat, for obvious reasons (for respect of the families), and earlier that morning apparently a tourist had come along and started taking photos with his huge fancy lens and expensive camera (imagine the drama and sarcasm in my voice)... it was broken immediately on the spot by the family members enduring the ceremony for their deceased loved one that the tourist chose to photograph. I already felt bad enough interrupting someone’s cremation for just observing purposes, how could someone impose themselves and be so selfish by taking a bunch of photos, especially without even asking? If someone had walked into my little cousin’s funeral back in 2008 and started taking pictures or even just stood around to observe, I would have made their day a living hell. How dare we be so insensitive by showing up to such a sacred, intimate and emotional ritual. Once we reached the hotel, Herag and I sat under the awning of the small outdoor restaurant for a while reflecting on the experience. I’ve spent the rest of the day thinking of that boy and those sad eyes.
I sit here now reflecting on just about everything I’ve learned in the last six months; trust, true love, family, heartbreak. Leaving Gajner last weekend was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to experience and I knew it would be the moment I arrived on that chilly, January morning. The car ride to Bikaner Junction to catch my last train out of Gajner was filled with young boys from the village and Manoj holding my hands with tears streaming from their eyes. I sobbed the entire ride there and didn't smile again until two days later when I got Gajner, in Sanskrit, tattooed on my heart.
In five days, I'll be in Australia (well, technically four days since they live in the future in the land down under). I can't believe I'm about to go from namaste, ji to g'day mate! Thank Shiva I'm returning to India because there are way too many mixed emotions in my heart and in my head from the past two weeks. I can't even fathom the idea of a goodbye...
So, I'll just say phir milenge. See you in a few months, India!