Arriving on the ghat of the Ganga before sunrise,
Waiting for the boatman to take me on the sacred river,
Standing, mesmerized, listening to the gentle waves,
Boats rising and falling with the river, as if breathing with grace,
Admiring barefoot pilgrims, crawling, walking for miles,
Chanting, with not a care in the world, their feet bleeding, their intentions ecstatic,
Ready for that holy dip which will wash away their sins.
Beggars and dogs still enjoying sweet slumber on steps going down to the Ganga.
Only the devouts are up at this dark hour, filling the narrow streets,
Also up are natives like me who don’t quite know where or how to belong,
Unanchored. Neither here nor there. Though Kashi and her Lord have no bother nor care.
The Shiva temples are open, dim yellow lights burning inside,
Ready to welcome daily patrons as well as those who stumble in by chance.
I felt a little hand on my forearm, looking down into almond eyes too big for the face,
“Would you like to buy a lamp?” “You would be my first customer so you will get a discount.”
Brave little soul, selling handcrafted basket lamps made of threaded leaves,
Oil moistened cotton wick neatly placed in the center, surrounded by freshly picked local flowers still full of life.
I stood there paralyzed, looking at the scrawny girl-child,
My maternal emotions overpowering discrimination and thought,
I sensed moisture in my eyes.
She too should not belong here, I thought. The other children in Varanasi are still asleep, protected, safe.
Why is she here? Alone?
Avoiding her question I asked my own, “Do you go to school mere bacchhe?”
She said “I sell lamps all day.” “Would you like to buy one?”
“Where are your parents?” “I’m an orphan,” she said.
“You can light the lamp, make a wish and then float it in the river and your wish will come true.”
She saw me as an outsider, compelled to explain the purpose of the lamps.
I bought two, breaking my resolve of not wanting to further pollute India with tourist whims, burdens and desires.
The lamps never floated down the river, no wishes were made.
I did however feel the river, the boats, the sleeping dogs and their bellies all breathe as One as the sun rose on the Ganga.
Each time I meditate on the purpose of existence, Varanasi haunts me.
For I have forever lost my heart to a little girl in Benares.
Perhaps my soul is anchored in Kashi.
Featured Image: DNA India