For hours the train had barely been keeping pace with the tea vendors who patrolled the dust alongside the carriages, pitching their wares. Now it had ground to a complete standstill, somewhere in the northern Indian countryside, where it would remain for the rest of the day. I took out my map and asked a man sitting opposite if he knew where we were. Following a few moments of deliberation, he drummed his fingertip against a location very close to our point of departure.
For a while I attempted to read: Kerouac's 40-year-old prose, corralled on pages of Lonesome Traveller, harboured more impetus than this sinew of the rail network that had grounded itself in the back of beyond, and which was now under siege from a gathering horde of hawkers, who had appeared from out of nowhere selling food and bottled water. I drowned the tedium, a few minutes at a time, with small cups of hot, sweet chai. For a while there was the novelty of tossing the disposable clay beakers through the windows where they shattered on the track. Later, I joylessly slogged my way through a small sack of oranges that I had been inadvisedly using as a pillow. They had not weathered the journey well. The movement of my head had loosened the skins and kneaded the fruit into a tepid, flavourless pulp.
I was returning, via a somewhat convoluted route, from Tarapith where I had been sexually molested by a priestess, and physically assaulted by men in black robes who had attempted, unsuccessfully, to extort money. The experience had thrown me off-kilter, souring me on India and leaving me unsure of my footing. I had come to a conclusion that I needed a few days of calm to resettle my foundation.
My destination was the city of Varanasi – a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, who believe that dying there, and being cremated on the banks of the Ganges, frees a soul from the cycle of death and rebirth, and invites the possibility of salvation.
Varanasi is also a hotspot for western travellers – the backwash of former colonial powers who are attracted by the strangeness of the place, the cheap hotels, and the legality of bhang – a preparation made from the leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. Mentioning that you had either come from, or were going to, Varanasi would invariably elicit a wistful “Ah, Banaras,” from one of your fellow travellers, who were engaging in some cultural one-upmanship by referring to the settlement using one of its ancient names.
The city embodies a deep weirdness that is informed by millennia of religious custom and obscure local traditions. On my first night there, while I was attempting to relocate my hotel, I almost walked into a man dressed in a hooded robe, who was weaving intricate patterns in the air with a broadsword. At breakfast one morning I watched from the balcony of a cafe as one of the abundant cows, who have the run of place, muscled its way into the produce of vegetable stall. The owners, who had temporarily set to one side any religious beliefs they might have entertained, regarding the sacred nature of such animals, were beating it around the head with the brass scale pans, in an attempt to repel it. There were many local characters: I will not forget the elderly woman with the sizeable hole in her skull, through which her brains were clearly visible.
I was told that the Aghori – an order of Sadhus (holy men) who feed on scraps from the bodies of the dead, in bowls fashioned from human skulls – have an ashram in the area, though I never saw it.
One of my friends, who had travelled India extensively, encountered a Hawaiian in Varanasi, who had adopted the customs of the Aghori. We will call him 'G'.
G wore a black robe that was lined with hidden pockets, many of which contained human bones. The local children found him fascinating and would bring him meat from the funeral pyres. He claimed to have once pulled the head off a burning body and then become embroiled in a skirmish with the grieving family regarding its ownership.
* * *
Varanasi is a large settlement. However, when one mentions the place, they are usually referencing the waterfront, where a junk-shop clutter of close-packed buildings, steeped in a veneer of grubby antiquity, crowd the riverbank. Viewed as a grimy architectural mass, the mind can trick you into thinking that you are gazing upon the tiered ramparts of an ancient city. Closer inspection will reveal, among the carved spires of the elongated temple domes, more modern structures that seem to have aged prematurely, as if they have been buried and then exhumed.
I found the alleyways between these buildings almost impossible to navigate. You entered, then wandered around for a while, until you were eventually spat out onto one of the main roads.
In this confined warren of sheer walls, worn paintwork and peeling plaster, where buildings straddled uneven causeways of flagstones, and electrical cables dangled in untidy garlands like climbing plants, imposing any kind of direction on your travel seemed like a grand folly. Your fate was in the lap of the gods, whose idols you would occasionally encounter occupying small nooks, or in the hands of whatever animistic deities gathered in the vicinity of the trees that grew in this unlikely setting, and whose ridged trunks were riddled with small charms and daubed in orange paint. Some sections of the alley network were barely wide enough to accommodate a single person. I once got stuck behind a cow – a minotaur in waiting, lost in a prototype labyrinth that had long gone to seed. With no other option, I followed at what I thought was a safe distance, until finally the beast lumbered up a narrow flight of stairs to a closed door, several feet above street level.
At the foot of the riverside buildings, a chain of broad stone staircases and grey beaches, known as ghats, line up along the edge of the water. Each one has a name. Some are used for specific purposes. At least two are earmarked for cremations. At all times of the day, shrouded bodies can be seen burning on wood pyres, the untroubled smoke of the dead drifting in plumes across the urgent hustle and bustle below, animating the lungs of the living. Those corpses that are regarded as either too infectious to burn, or who are considered too spiritually pure to require cremation, are set adrift on the river. It you go out on the water, you will sometimes see one bob past among the floral offerings and dispersing garlands.
Once, when I was perched on the stairs of the Main Ghat, looking out across the Ganges, a man came over and stood next to me. He pointed out some far-off vessel with a low profile in water and told me that it was a submarine. When I asked him what business a submarine might have off the shores of Varanasi, he confided that it was monitoring some Sadhus who were meditating on the riverbed.
* * *
I finally arrived in Varanasi, eighteen hours late and in an absolutely foul mood. No sooner had I disembarked from the train than a rickshaw driver was keeping pace alongside me. I wrote down the name and the address of the hotel where I planned to stay and asked him if he knew it. He said that he did and that he would take me there.
It was a pedal rickshaw. We made slow but steady progress through the traffic. As we drew nearer to the waterfront, my driver's earlier certainty as to the whereabouts of the hotel began to wane. Despite my best efforts to guide him, he decided that he would have to ask someone. At a busy junction, he veered away to the right, while I pointed in vain in the opposite direction. I realised that I had become a victim of one of those soft kidnappings that invariably end at a hotel or a business, to which the driver has some familial or financial ties. In this instance we ended up outside a shop that looked like it might specialise in selling carpets.
The argument that followed very quickly deteriorated into an orchestrated farce. My driver had lost his earlier command of English and was now relaying his answers through a translator who had appeared out of nowhere, and who seemed to know him.
“Why did you say that you knew where the hotel was when you didn't know?”
“He was afraid you would not go with him if he said he didn't know.”
“Well of course I wouldn't have. Why didn't he follow my directions?”
“That is why he has come here. So you can ask.”
“Then let him ask.”
“He does not understand what you have written down. You must go inside and ask.”
I knew this con well enough. Once inside the shop, there would be the high pressure sales pitch; the promise that any carpet you purchased would sell for many times the amount back in England. As if anyone was going to travel around India with a bloody great rug – a beacon broadcasting loud and clear to other predatory salesmen that the shirt on your back was also up for grabs.
By now my patience was exhausted. I threw the fare we had agreed upon in the gutter in front of the driver.
“If want it then you can pick it up,” I told him.
Twelve hours later I would back here and the consequences of my actions would catch up with me.
* * *
My friend, Heinz, had recommended that, while in Varanasi, I should try some bhang. This can be purchased in a variety of forms from licenced shops. The most popular mode of consumption is in a lassi, which is a drink made from sweetened curd, blended with fruit.
Heinz had neglected to furnish me with any further details regarding what one could expect from a dose of bhang. In the absence of this anecdotal information, I assumed that it would produce a mellow and unobtrusive high; the kind that might enhance an evening sitting by the river watching the dead drift past.
That night, I sat down on a bench seat in a small cafe and ordered a 'special' lassi. When the proprietor asked me how strong I wanted it, I replied:
A few minutes later I was presented with a tall, condensation-covered glass, containing an opaque, dark-green liquid that looked like it had been skimmed off the surface of a stagnant pond. I took a tentative sip. It was cold and very sweet. I was thirsty and drank it quickly. When I was finished, I remained in the cafe while I waited for the drug to do its work.
A quarter of an hour later I was still waiting.
An elderly Indian gentlemen took the seat next to mine.
“You like bhang?” he said, eyeing the dregs in the empty glass.
“It doesn't really affect me.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I think I'm going to wander back to my hotel and call it a night.”
“Where is your hotel?”
“I'm not telling you where my hotel is.”
I got to my feet and began to walk along the main road that ran parallel to the alley network. The bhang was still giving me nothing. It seemed like a fitting bookend to a day that had begun in a similar fashion with me being ripped off.
After a while I turned left into the road that led to Harishchandra Ghat – the second of the two burning ghats where bodies are cremated. It dawned on me that this was where my earlier altercation with the rickshaw driver had occurred.
Gradually I became aware of a very strange sensation in the centre of my forehead, as though a tiny sun was pulsing with joy just below the skin. This was accompanied by a feeling of ascension, as if I was being drawn towards the summit of a roller-coaster but never quite reaching the top. 'It'll level out soon,' I told myself, but it didn't. Instead it continued to escalate, gathering a steady and yet urgent momentum. Like my earlier rickshaw journey, or any given foray into the alleyways of Varanasi, I was on rails, with no control over my destination and no option other than to ride to the end of the line, wherever that might be.
By now it was completely dark. Uncertain of what I should do, I carried on to the bottom of the road. On the beach, a cremation was underway. Tall flames were licking at the carbonised silhouette of what had once been a human being, with hopes and dreams, and opinions, and basic needs. Now it was nothing. In the heat haze it seemed like the body was melting into the air.
Alongside the pyre there stood the concrete shell of a building. Rectangular openings in the walls formed dark voids where there should have been windows and doors. I walked around it, until I located a way inside.
A cement staircase, with no bannister rail, emerged from the wall nearest to the entrance. It was probably no more than two-feet across. I climbed it carefully, as if I was moving through the shifting architecture of a lucid dream. At the top, I padded across a bare concrete room and through an empty doorway. At the far end of the adjacent room, a rectangular hole stretched almost from the floor to the ceiling. I walked towards the opening until I was framed by it, gazing down upon the slowly-collapsing funeral pyre, that was burning perhaps fifteen feet below where I stood. The smell of smoke and the sharp crack of wood and bone filled the air around me. Every so often, a scrap of flame would separate itself from the conflagration and briefly lunge upward before flickering into nothingness, as if it had unintentionally twisted itself out of this plane of existence.
Behind me I heard the sound of footsteps. A small gang of teenagers had followed me into the building. They gathered around me, blocking my exit. Among them I recognised the rickshaw driver who I had argued with that morning.
“Turn around,” said one of the boys.
I felt a hand on my shoulder attempting to gently steer me so that I was facing the empty window with my back towards the group.
“I'm not going to turn around,” I said, weakly. “You're going to push me into the fire.”
When I resisted, the manhandling became more forceful.
I shook the hands off and glowered back at them, barring my teeth like a cornered animal.
The leader of the group looked me sadly in the eye.
“My friend wants to tell you a story,” he said.
Something in these words triggered my fight or flight instincts. I shoved the boy roughly to one side. Another moved to block my escape. I punched him in the stomach. With the way clear, I charged through the two rooms. On the narrow staircase my legs turned to jelly. It took every ounce of concentration I had to keep myself from stumbling over the side. Something told me that if I did fall, then it would be over for me.
Out in the street I ran without looking back. At the earliest opportunity I dived into the alleyways where I hoped that I would be safe.
I don't recall much about the next hour or so. My only enduring memory is of being forced to stand aside for a group of wealthy tourists who were being escorted by bodyguards brandishing assault rifles.
My hotel was run by a devout Muslim family, who I was certain would not tolerate intoxication. The owner was sitting in the reception with some of his friends. He said “good evening” to me as I entered. With considerable effort I composed my face into a rictus expression, that I hoped came across as normal, and managed to return the greeting,
In my room, I threw myself down on the mattress. Incredibly I still hadn't peaked. I was hearing noises that seemed to be emanating from behind an invisible wall, Small distortions in the fabric of reality were overloading my visual cortex. My temperature had rocketed. My heart was racing. Blood pounded in my ears. I pulled a notebook from my rucksack and began scribbling down what I assumed would be my last words, before crossing them out and starting again, and again, and again.
Eventually, overcome by the strong urge to void the contents of my stomach, I staggered across the hall to the communal bathroom opposite. This room consisted of a tap above a hole in the floor. Standing upright, I opened my mouth and projectile vomited a fire-hose blast of green puke onto the far wall.
When it was over I returned to my room. My temperature was still raging. I felt certain now that I was going to die. It was simply a matter of time. Then, in the depths of my despair, there came a ray of hope.
Sitting bent over on the side of the mattress I was struck by a sudden revelation: The blotches of green vomit covering the legs of my jeans had camouflaged me from death. If death couldn't find me, then he couldn't take me. It was with these comforting thoughts that I drifted into unconsciousness.
I awoke the following morning feeling strangely invigorated and none the worse for wear.
To this day I don't know how much of what I perceived was seeded by my own paranoia, and how close I actually came to being pushed into a funeral pyre. One of my friends pointed out to me that, if I had met my end this way, I would have at least been freed from the cycle of death and rebirth.
“I don't know. I think I can stand a few more turns around the board,” I said.
I don't recommend getting high in Varanasi. That place is strange enough as it is.