A British travel writer’s account of an extended stay in the northern Indian city of Varanasi, a 5,000-year-old “experiment in human cohabitation” on the banks of the Ganges River.
Moore Ede (All Kinds of Magic: A Quest for Meaning in a Material World, 2010, etc.) first traveled to Varanasi en route to Nepal. He had very little idea of the place “other than it was supposed to be interesting.” It was only after he returned to live there for a year and interview its inhabitants that he was able to appreciate Varanasi’s amazing, and bewildering, complexity. Revered by Jains, Buddhists and Hindus, Varanasi was known as the “Holy City” because of the mythic promise of spiritual transcendence it offered believers. Yet its morally conservative surface belied darker realities. Drug dealing and human trafficking were serious problems, just as they were elsewhere in India. Heroine traders did brisk business in the city, as did brothels, which made use of services provided by homeless, widowed or kidnapped women. Corruption existed at every possible level. But as Moore Ede discovered, Varanasi was also a city of many delights. These included its famous sweets, which encompassed everything from “simple fudge-like creations to the most extraordinary concoctions of spice, dried fruit and cottage cheese.” Music was another glory. The author learned how Varanasi was not only home to the meditative rhythms of Vedic chanting; it was also an important center of north Indian classical music. Flowing eternally through the city was the river. “Tired and over-burdened” from being used in the past as a depository for cremated bodies, waste and, in the present, industrial effluvia, the once-magnificent river reigned supreme as the most contaminated river on the planet. For Moore Ede, however, the meaning of the river went even deeper. Like Varanasi itself, the Ganges was ultimately a symbol of India’s destructive “tryst” with modernity.
A thoughtful and incisive memoir/travelogue.