I’m posting this from the tarmac of the airport in Delhi (I no more enjoy calling it “Indira Gandhi International Airport” than I would willingly refer to National Airport in Washington, D.C. “Ronald Reagan Airport”), on my way to the 7th Annual International AIDS Conference. India is playing host to this year’s gathering of leading scientists, doctors, and NGOs working on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the venue for the conference is Varanasi.
I am looking forward to the conference, at which I will be representing an innovative biotechnology project that provides unique sample preservation tools to enable the diagnosing HIV infection through analysis of DNA. Still, I am dreading being back in Varanasi. Rather than recount my reasons, let me attach the text of an email I sent following my previous visit in 2002.
For those of you who do not already know, Varanasi is the holiest city in Hinduism, sitting on the banks of the sacred, if toxic, river Ganga. You may know it by its former name, Benares. According to the Vedas, one who dies in Varanasi will attain instant moksha, automatically escaping the cycle of death and rebirth (or is it birth and redeath?). As a result, the city is awash with the aged and dying, as well as Sadhus, hippies, and lesser pilgrims.
Leaving Varanasi was not easy – an arduous 45 minutes to go the 17 km. to catch our onward train from the neighboring one-dog town of Mughal Sarai – but very satisfying. Varanasi was such a crushing disappointment, the dingy waiting room of the Mughal Surai station seemed like paradise, with gecko races along the walls as added entertainment. When our train finally arrived, it was like salvation, freeing our spirits much as the funeral pyres at the Varanasi ghats free the souls of the dead.
Once aboard, I was able to reflect on the Varanasi experience with a bit more equanimity than one can muster while they are in the midst of the heat, pandemonium, and filth.
Varanasi is singular, and can accurately be described in superlatives. It is the holiest of sites, inarguably one of the most culturally significant places in human history. Its dramatic ghats flanking the sweeping Ganges, filled with pilgrims and priests, are supremely atmospheric. The countless sick and the aged who have come to die in Varanasi, and its incessantly burning funeral pyres, give death a feeling of immediacy, familiarity, and tolerability that I, for one, simply have never experienced before.
But it is also the filthiest place I have ever been. It takes extreme care to get from one end of the train platform to the other, upon arrival, without stepping in human excrement; and this is par for the course on the city streets and on the ghats, as well. Trash is to Varanasi as sand is to the desert – it drifts into dunes here and there, to be rummaged by pigs or cattle or dogs; but it is ubiquitous, filling every void, finding every corner, touching everything. Then there are the diesel fumes, the incessant noise, the breezeless heat, and the nauseating stench. Against this backdrop, we, as foreigners, are also treated to the aggressive touts, drivers, rickshaw wallahs, and shop keepers who are constantly in our faces, with the standard opening line, “Hello, which country?” That line ceased to sound like a friendly greeting long ago.
The problem of Varanasi is not simply that it is horrible, although its perfect horribleness is problem enough. My disillusionment stems from the fact that this, of all cities in India, should be well cared for. How is it possible that a place that is so venerated could be so utterly defiled?
As upsetting as the day had been, I would have felt I’d missed out on something important had we not gone. I’d have been wrong, of course; and Yoo-Mi is quick to point this out.