Thursday, October 24, 2013

Silk... Stupas... Sex School?

Within 24 hours of my arrival in Varanasi, I found myself in a cyber café, typing an email for another new “friend” named Baboo, who sold silks.  We were responding to a potential buyer from Estonia.  Baboo’s original message read as if a chipmunk had been exercising on the keyboard, so I talked with him for a while and then tweaked his original email for clarity and overall professionalism. 

Which makes me wonder… did I do a justice for Baboo by making his actual meaning better understood, or did I do an injustice to the buyer by presenting the silk products through a false voice?  Or did I do both simultaneously, essentially cancelling out the karmic results?  I know that I would be much more likely to buy silk/pashmina from someone with impeccable English than someone with a limited command.  Is this just because of the ease and clarity of the resulting communication, or some prejudice running much deeper?
After talking to Baboo at length about his silks, I realized that he didn’t really know a whole lot about them.  He just kept repeating “export quality” and “100% pure” and “promise, promise, friend.”  I eventually found out that there are two types of silk—thick and thin—and that they cost the same.  I knew that Mr. Estonia was going to wonder why one was thick and one was thin, and why there was no price difference, but I also knew Baboo couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer.  After clearing the final draft with Baboo and pressing “send,” he treated me to a dosa and chai. 

The next day, he also gave me a free boat ride along the Ganges. 

The most interesting part of the tour was the burning ghat, remarkably close to where I was staying, where photography was strictly forbidden.  We stopped right in front of the burning ghat for at least 10 minutes, while most other boats just floated slowly by.  This is what I learned:

The male head of the household is responsible for actually setting the body on fire.  These men were visible because they had shaved heads and wore white, toga-like attire.  Baboo said women stay at home during the process because they are “too emotional.”  He earnestly believed that women become so overcome with grief that they throw themselves into the flames with their husbands, completely oblivious that only a very rare, cracked nut would do something like that on their own accord. 

Baboo said it takes about three hours for a body to burn and that the family stands and watches the entire time before letting the ashes free on the Ganga.  Certain types of bodies, including those of children, pregnant women, Untouchables (those below the caste system), and holy men, are not allowed to be burned, so they are dropped directly into the Ganga.

Baboo admitted that the Ganga is his “mother,” but he will not bathe in it because of all the pollution.  And “pollution” is almost euphemistic—the water is literally septic.  Ironically, Baboo had to take a pee break in the middle of the rowing.

Yes, he took a piss on his mother.

Afterwards, he confessed that it was very bad for his karma and he asked for forgiveness (from the water, of course, not me).  Bodily functions are not excused here, they are simply accepted.  And so I watched the nightly puja amidst a cacophony of middle-aged-man-farts.  Thank you, Baboo, for making the moment magical.

The next, and last, day of vacation, I took a day trip to Sarnath, an important site along the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit.  It was very peaceful and relaxing.  I visited a museum full of paraphernalia that predated the birth of Christ.  I couldn’t take pictures, but one thing the most interesting part of the museum was the Buddha Room, which was entirely filled with various sculptures of Buddha.  It wasn’t so much the sculptures that intrigued me, but the group of Buddhists that came in and—er, interacted—with the statues.  They had prayer beads in their hands and bowed before each and every statue, rubbing the beads on and putting their hands all over these phenomenally old relics.  One of the museum guards said something to them, but he didn’t say it very forcefully and they didn’t really listen.  I thought it was interesting how quickly they hurried through the museum.  They didn’t read the plaques; they just paid reverence and went on their way… probably on to the Dhamekh Stupa, where Buddha preached his first sermon. 

I was so upset I couldn't put foil on stuff.
Back in Varanasi, I said goodbye to dear old Baboo.  We ate dinner together and he “gifted” me a sari, which served me well for both graduation and Independence Day.

A few months later, he added me on Facebook.  Guess which prestigious school he attended?

"Sex school."

Friend request denied.

bathing in the Ganges

Creepy poster in the room I stayed in.

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