I read that pilgrims flowed into the city of Varanasi to cleanse their spirits within the sacred Ganges River. They believed dying within the city bounds provided a direct route to their god. Their corpses were often burnt by the river bank and the ashes swept away with the current, on a highway to heaven.
Been a holy pilgrimage city for Indians, the city of Varanasi was therefore also a pilgrimage stop for tourists. From my hotel I walked down to the Ganges and watched the proceedings. A series of steps and sinking structures lined the river bank, leaning over the pilgrims bathing themselves in the polluted water. Women cleansing their clothes at the same time as pilgrims cleansing their souls; if we happen to meet our maker it is best to be adequately prepared and presentable.
While sitting on the shore a local male approached and offered his services as a head masseur. A head massage? Why not?
I had read what was to occur next. As his fingers delved into the outside of my skull an accomplice of the masseur approached and started massaging my neck. I put a stop to the proceedings. I told them I had only agreed to pay a certain amount and I was not about to double the price for an additional neck massage. If they both continued then they would simply have to split the negotiated price between them.
I had read the theory was two people had a better chance of winning an argument against one, especially if that one was unprepared. But I had been in India for a few weeks and would have stood in a queue for up to ten hours for the chance to argue my point.
“You expect to pay US$0.10 for a head massage. It is a pittance” said the head masseur, starting proceedings.
“It may be a pittance in the United States. But we are in the third world and 10 cents is an adequate, agreed upon price” I replied.
“Third world?!!!” he said, startled.
“Or course India is third world. Look around you. People are bathing in a river where relatives dump their family corpses. It is bloody unhygienic!” I explained and then expanded “You can buy a day’s food or an education in India for US$0.10. Take it or leave it.”
Perhaps my corpse will be next to float down the River Ganges. He stuck out his hand and I filled it with the equivalent of US$0.10 in coinage. Rueful, glaring glances; what did he have to complain about? I’m the one whose head massage was cut short.
Later that day I had to make my way back to the train station, leaving Varanasi behind. It was going to be more of the same familiar scenes. Queues where everyone pushed, shoved and stood at the front; sinister smiles from the local ladies, men lying on the top of the train carriage trying to catch a free ride and guards, baton at the ready, periodically venting their frustration upon them.
I was slightly behind schedule and hurried to the back of the train station queue. Chaos! Stand your ground as everyone who arrived after, subsequently stood in front of me. Do you mind? I was here an hour before you and my train is due to leave in 30 minutes. If I don’t manage to buy a train ticket then …
I need not have worried. I was told the train would be an hour late. This became two hours, expanded into five hours and eventually settled at the round number of a day. I might as well make my way back to the hotel.
The next day I returned to the shores of the River Ganges, hoping to avoid any contact with my friend, the head masseur. I was confident my third world comments had not engendered myself to him and his neck associate or improved East-West relations. I half expected a shady figure to waiting for me in a dark, dingy alley, ready to give my back a massage with a blunt knife.
But I had other things on my mind. I had to catch my 24 hour delayed train to the north-eastern edge of India, Calcutta. Occasionally songs run through your mind summing up your feelings. The song ‘I’ve got to get out of this place’ by the Animals repeated, reverberated through my thoughts.
India had bruised and battered me. My inside bodily functions were churned. My mind was close to boiling, about to explode through my skull. My thoughts were suffocating, sitting in a damp swamp with a dry air, depression.
I was about to ‘all aboard’ another claustrophobic train trip. I was about to take the last exit to nowhere. The signs labelled escape and freedom where still too far to light the darkness within my mind.
‘Sweet sanctuary, she looked through my eyes and caught the imagination of my mind. Smile, she said, for I am the one upon whom you can rest your weary thoughts.
Do not look back for tomorrow when I am standing by your side,
For today is the time when I shall be mine,
And together we shall be strong’.