The night I arrived in Varanasi I walked along the bank of the Ganges, the flames from the cremation ghats sending an orange glow skittering across the black water and crackling sparks into the night sky. Hot ashes carpeted the floor, blowing down towards the waters edge where small children, dark skinned and untouchable, worked in the sticky black mud. One pyre glowed black-red in its final hour near to where we stood, and my heart thudded into my stomach as my eyes found a pair of charred feet at one end, a blackened skull at the other. We are not so used to seeing death in the West. I bought a tiny offering from a wide eyed child and floated it in the shallows, dipping my feet into the sacred water and trickling some over my head with my right hand.
The next morning, I met Lala. He sat in his stained undershirt on the rooftop of my guesthouse, drinking chai from a tin and chewing enthusiastically on a wad of paan. He didn’t look like my guide, but that is what he was. He sat with me on the edge of the water, the taste of ash in our mouths, and explained the cremation ceremonies to me. He took me to his favourite chai shop, where we sat in companionable silence and sipped spiced milky tea from the traditional clay bowls. He took me to a hive of narrow winding lanes; a series of low rooms full of murky light in which looms clatter and spidery fingers spin threads of gold and azure and rose into a princesses’ robes. He sat and smiled with paternal weariness as I tried on a dozen saris. When he offered to take me to meet his family Guru-ji, I immediately said yes.
Padding on my tip toes up three flights of narrow, precipitous stairs; I crossed a tiny rooftop courtyard to enter the cavelike darkness of the ‘consultation’ room through a set of crumbling wooden doors. The room was small, unfurnished, with whitewashed walls crawling with speckled black mould and dust motes dancing in the single shaft of pale sunlight filtering weakly through the cracked shutters. The guru sat cross-legged on the floor, his eyes flashing white light in the gloom as he stared at me. Lala and I sat across from him, and he took both my hands in his.
‘What do you want to know?’ he asked quietly.
I explained to him that I have frequent and vivid recurring dreams, most of them dark and some of them inexplicably menacing. I asked him if my dreams were anchored in something hidden below the surface. He nodded absently, his thumbs running over the lines of my upturned palms, and began to methodically make notes and diagrams in a small tattered leather notebook that lay by his side. We sat there in the darkness, the only sounds the scratching of his pencil, his whispered murmurs in Hindi, and the muffled sounds of traffic a world away in the street below. After several minutes, he stopped and exchanged glances with Lala. The two men spoke rapidly in Hindi, gesturing at me, until I could bear it no longer and asked ‘what is it?’ in a strange, high voice. He turned his gaze to me, then, and studied me carefully.
‘You have fear sometimes, here’ he gestured to his stomach. ‘Fear, like a pain, but not all the time, and then you cannot eat. You have this for maybe one year and a half’.
I nodded wordlessly, understanding that he was describing the anxiety attacks that unfurl in my stomach every so often, apparently without cause or trigger. He made a satisfied noise, and returned to his study of my hands. His eyes locked again with mine, sadness within them. I felt ice water in my veins. He spoke in rapid Hindi to Lala, both men now staring at me.
‘Someone wished you bad. Someone hates you, and now they wished you bad, and you have something bad inside you. You have a demon inside you’.
The ice water began to freeze over. The one thing you definitely never want to hear from a holy man in India is ‘you have a demon inside you’. He told me that I must return to see him later that evening, to not be afraid, that he could find a way to rid me of the demon from his readings of the stars.
My head swam as I climbed onto the bike behind Lala, biting my lip and swallowing tears. We crawled through Varanasi’s streets, hot and filthy as hell and jammed with people and bikes and cows and children and chickens like a huge, clotted artery pulsing slowly in the heat. I felt scared and angry; unable to shake the nagging doubt in my mind that he was lying, that I would return only to be asked for money; angry at myself for being unable to fully believe in something so far removed from the world of science and logic in which my understanding resides. I had gone to him for answers, why did I find it so difficult to accept them?
Lala finally slowed the bike and stopped at the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple.
‘I don’t really feel like seeing a temple right now Lala’ I said, my mind turned inwards. He just smiled and beckoned for me to follow him, through the throngs of people and past the men selling string bracelets and boxed temple offerings, their faces withered like sun-browned apples.
The temple was dark and close and full of people. The concrete walls were covered with messages and prayers and daubs of red, orange, yellow and pink. I accepted a tilak blessing, a red banner of reassurance across my forehead. The air felt clean and cool, humming with whispered prayers and peaceful silences, and I felt my fear washed away as I wandered through the rooms. Many people dislike this temple; it is dirty and dark and not beautiful, but I left feeling cleansed and calm, the beauty of the people and their faith brightening the stains on the walls. It was probably the truest religious experience I had in India.
I didn’t go back to Lala’s Guru-ji. Maybe I’m not able to reconcile his beliefs with my own. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe I still exist too firmly in a world of science. Maybe I’m just not ready. Whatever the reason, that day pushed against some door hidden inside my Westernised, atheist belief system and cracked it open. And I left Varanasi with my mind a little more bruised, a little more understanding, and a little more open to answers.