Varanasi has toyed with my mind like a predator toys with its prey before the slaughter.
A week or so ago I would have laughed this off and thought how ironic my circumstances are. How coincidental that we're in the holy Indian city where people come to die and end their life cycle. How melodramatic I'm being by feeling strongly about my daily discomfort. How all this is cute and strangely charming. But everything has compounded and I'm not taking it lightly like I've insisted on doing for weeks.
We've visited the burning ghats and watched countless bodies being burnt along the river as part of what's become a massive lumber industry. In looking for stories to work on we've encountered two leprosy colonies, and an impoverished hospital burn ward for (mainly) people won't admit their teenage daughter was set on fire by her husband's family because of an insufficient dowry. Today I read the news and found that a young actor I deeply admired, Heath Ledger, was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. Celia was groped by a mob of Indian men while we were photographing the Muslim festival of Muharram on Sunday, wherein boys and men flagellated and cut themselves to mourn the prophet Muhammand's grandson. My shirt is stained with their blood.
I think the Muharram festival was really the tipping point, whereas I'd have handled the other things relatively well.
Celia and I have discussed what we saw at length, and have done our best to stay objective, to empathize, to put ourselves in their position. But, as I am admittedly pretty ignorant about Islam and India and was raised a Westerner, I have biases. It has been difficult to admit to myself how disgusted and disturbed I am by what I saw. I am not jumping to conclusions about Islam in general. I simply believe that public displays of violence and self-mutilation are abhorrent, and am perplexed by the culture that maintains the practice in these supposedly progressive times.
Throughout my trip, I've marveled at India's contradictory nature. While countries surrounding India are torn apart by violence, people here remain in a relative state of peace. Even the fight for independence was non-violent. Despite abject poverty, often gruesome living conditions, total lack of privacy and organization, unstable infrastructure, corrupt institutions, etc etc, people are at peace. They accept the state of their life as is, as karma, as destiny, as whatever, but they don't cause each other physical harm. This phenomenon, Celia and I have discussed, might be attributed to the peaceful nature of Hinduism. Somehow the ancient culture (which can be felt in full-force in Varanasi) has that quality of accepting your life for what it is. I'm reminded of that when I see body after body being carried down to the burning ghats. I'm reminded of that when I see hundreds of people living incredibly simple lives without a word of complaint or a negative gesture. But my understanding of this country is torn asunder when I see people celebrating violence en masse. My limited world-view cannot grasp why it is necessary for a child of 10 years to take a knife to his skull and bleed profusely over his face while beating his chest in recognition of a famous battle. This, to me, is the definition of backward. And unfortunately it does raise questions about the violent nature of Islam and the reason why the West is fighting a war against Islamic terrorists.
This also makes me consider, though, that the United States in all its progressive glory is causing unjustifiable bloodshed in Iraq. Maybe Americans don't go around bleeding themselves in the streets in the name of God, but our government has certainly sent thousands to their death in the name of $$$ and, some would say, in the name of God. It may be a cleverer way of being violent. To create subtle justifications for our actions and dish out destruction far away from home so that people don't feel it in their daily lives. Of course, that is, other than mothers who lose their sons overseas.
I don't know who is right and who is sane, but I know I'm learning that life is extremely fragile and fleeting, and that I want to suck in as much air as possible before I go down with the ship.