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Lori Imsdahl

Rich, White Tourist

When I arrive in Varanasi at twilight, on March 2nd, on a crowded bus, the first thing I notice is the Ganges River snaking through the city. It’s wide, shrouded in fog and there are steps, called ghats, along its west bank. Everything looks clean and ordered and I’m excited to be in a Hindu holy city. I ask my Indian friend, Javed, if he has any suggestions about what to do in Varanasi.

“Get your palms read,” Javed tells me. “Varanasi has the best palm readers in India. They’re Hindu priests, actually.”

Javed makes a phone call to a Hindu priest, then scrawls directions on a paper napkin to a room below a rug shop in the Old City where the priest will meet me the following morning, at half past ten, for an astrological reading. Javed’s map indicates that, to get there, I will need to walk along the Ganges until I reached ghat # 42, then cut inland.

The next morning, when I leave my hotel and reach the ghats, I realize that yesterday’s twilight was deceiving; Varanasi is a cluster fuck. I’m accustomed to chaos, having been in India since early February, but Varanasi is the biggest cluster fuck so far. Goats and stray dogs with weeping sores sprawl across the steps leading to the Ganges. Piles of shit are everywhere. Some are new—wet, steaming, fly infested. Some are dry, sun baked, trampled into the concrete by hundreds of feet. A limbless man naps in the shade of a graffiti-etched building. Dozens of beggars troll the riverfront, holding out cups and cardboard boxes, crying when they see me, “Madam, rupees? Rupees, madam?”

A gaggle of six or seven children began trailing me. “Madam rupees? Rupees, madam?” They’re persistent little fuckers. Their ringleader, a 10 or 11-year old who speaks fluent English caveats, “Please? Madam, we haven’t eaten today.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any rupees,” I tell them.

It’s not true.

My money purse has enough rupees to feed all six or seven children for a week, maybe longer. But I know that pulling out those rupees would attract twenty or thirty more beggars and it’s not worth it. I say nothing else, look straight ahead, and continue walking. Their ringleader could be lying about not eating today. But maybe he’s not. Or maybe his family runs a prostitution ring and my money will pay a father in return for his daughter. It’s difficult to know what your money will be used for in India.

All I know is that I’m a rich, white tourist on her way to get her palms read by a Hindu priest below a rug shop in the Old City. Suddenly, I hate myself for that fact and I feel my cheeks redden.

In the twilight, the ghats had appeared clean and ordered but now I see they’re ripe with trash—papers, bottles, cans, fabric, food. Up ahead, smoke rises from a ghat where Hindus are cremating dead bodies.

I heard about the cremation ghat before I arrived in Varanasi. It’s piled high with wood and in operation almost continuously. Someone I met in Udaipur told me that she spent an entire afternoon watching the bodies burn. She tried to convince me that the experience was cathartic. Someone else, in Pushkar, told me that there comes a point in the cremation process where brain matter catches on fire; at that moment, he explained, the skull makes a popping noise.

The gaggle of beggars finally gives up and they scatter and I’m alone. I see women in saris holding brown babies. Half-naked children scamper on the steps. One child stops, pulls down his shorts, grips his small penis and pisses into the Ganges. Nearby, people bathe, wash their clothes, swim, and fish. The river is clogged with boats. A herd of water buffalo is snorting and sidling offshore.

The night before, the Ganges had looked almost pristine in the soft salmon twilight, and I could almost justify stripping, descending the ghats, entering the Ganges, doing the front crawl, maneuvering around boats, reaching the middle, and floating on my back until stars spotted the sky.

In the daylight, however, there’s no doubt that the Ganges is one of the most polluted waterways on Earth; I’ve read that two million people bathe in it each day and that fecal coli form levels near Varanasi are more than 100 times the official government level.

The dirtiness is ironic, because Hindus believe the Ganges is a tonic that washes away spiritual impurities; bathing in the Ganges is the Hindu equivalent of Catholic confession. Hindus also believe that dying in Varanasi releases them from the cycle of reincarnation and sends them straight to Nirvana. When a Hindu dies in Varanasi, they’re cremated and their ashes are scattered in the river. Priests and babies aren’t cremated, however; their bodies are weighted and dropped in the water.

I stop suddenly, on the edge of the Ganges, put a hand to my mouth, and cough a few times. My throat has been irritated for a week and I’m afraid that it’s about to turn into a full-blown upper respiratory infection. The air quality in Varanasi is not helping. I feel as though I’ve been smoking for the past 24 hours.

And then I see it.

Two dogs are circling it, sniffing it. It has washed right up to the ghats, to a place where the water is shallow and stagnant. I walk closer. At first, I think it might be a child’s doll, but then I realize I’m looking at a dead baby.

I study the wet, yellow flesh, the small hand, the even smaller fingers, and the top of a head. The baby is floating on his stomach. I’m relieved that I can’t see his face. The dogs continue to circle, sniff. Other people are nearby but no one seems to care.

I wonder how this baby ended up here. Again, I remember that babies and priests are not cremated, but weighted and dropped in the Ganges. Was he not weighted properly? Was he dropped too close to shore?

It feels morbid to keep looking. And so I continue walking. But I can’t get his image out of my head. I want to know more. Who were his parents? Was he stillborn or did he die shortly after he was born? What was childbirth like for his mother?

I realize that I’m assigning the baby a gender, that I’m referring to the baby as “him.” In all probability, the baby could be “she.” In which case, I wonder if her parents killed her because she was female. I’ve read that female infanticide is common in countries like India, Pakistan, and China. If she was killed, which parent killed her? And how?

I reach ghat # 42 and cut inland. I walk down an alleyway that parallels the river. There is shit everywhere. I slide on the new variety, and am glad I’ve chosen to wear closed toe shoes.

There are houses on either side of the alleyway, and I peer inside. They’re small, with concrete floors. A large cow is standing inside one doorway. There’s a small kitchen beyond the cow and I see two women preparing food over a cook stove.

Another gaggle of children pass. These children are wearing school uniforms—white shirts tucked into navy slacks. Their uniforms are impeccable; I’m amazed at how clean they are despite the shit, despite the poverty, despite the caliber of their homes. I contrast the neighborhood in Varanasi to my neighborhood in America—a neighborhood with two story houses, mowed lawns, animals that are kept inside or leashed, a nearby grocery store stocked with almost any food one can imagine. Again, I feel my cheeks redden. I look at my watch and pick up my pace. It’s a quarter past ten and I don’t want to be late for my astrological reading.

©2012 by Lori Imsdahl

Lori Imsdahl was born and raised in Minnesota and spent five years in the United States Army. After the Army, she took a five-month backpacking trip, exploring nineteen countries. In 2012, she was runner-up for the Melanie Hook Rice Award in Creative Nonfiction at Hollins University, where she is a second-year student in the MFA program. Her work is forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal.

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