Self, Other and the Waters of the Ganges

I am in Uttarakhand, in the holy fluvial city of Rishikesh. Here, the Ganges beckons, and a walk beside her in the early morning or evening is a pleasure indeed. After part of the day spent on the “wrong” (more chaotic, and more worldly) side of the river, walking to and from the station, through the riot of noise and traffic (vehicular, human and animal), my late afternoon idea is to follow the sinking sun towards the ghats, pass the footbridge which I will not cross, stroll along the section of riverside promenade (which reminds me vaguely of southern France), and then down to the beach. I am staying in the Ram Jhula quarter of the town, in a quiet back street. From there I set out, weaving my way through a sizable scattering of people heading in all directions, complacent cows of many sizes and shapes (some rather thin, one or two bulbous and pregnant), and itinerant monkeys, then bearing right down the short, sharp slope, lined with Babas, who sit, orange, white and bearded, their scant possessions (a tiered stainless steel food tin, a shawl or blanket, perhaps a tattered umbrella) at their feet. As I pass beneath the short arcade which houses the Chotiwala restaurant, I find myself held up by a crowd of visitors congregating in the middle of the road, oblivious to the obstruction they are causing, so absorbed are they in the scene before them. In front of the restaurant, a fat man – the Chotiwala – is perched on a raised chair, his face pasted white and decorated with colourful patterns. His head is shaven, save for a unicorn-like horn of hair rising from the summit of his cranium – the choti – and the Indians are delightedly photographing or filming him with their cell phones, gleefully taking selfies, and in their excitement generally making a spectacle of themselves. I sense a wave of irritation come over me, as I try and push through this bunch of fully grown adults, prancing around immaturely in front of a plump painted figure who is nothing more than publicity, (locals have told me he has no religious significance). I must nevertheless plead guilty, a few days later, to snapping a few shots of the good wallah myself, as the idiosyncracsy of his promotional stunt sank in – I sent them by Whatsapp to family and friends, wondering how people would react if a similar stunt were pulled in the Quartier latin, or on Camden high street. Silently indignant at the groups’ self-absorption while they stand in everyone’s way, I squeeze past them at last, pondering once more the mysteries of Indian behaviour. After my first trips to Mother India, I had concluded that the Indian ego is less inflated, and simpler, than our own. It lacks that part which is so deliberately and purposefully crafted, obsessed with self-definition and self-assertion. Nor does it appear to crystallize around possessions, achievements, beliefs and opinions, far less future plans and aspirations (as if some challenge I intend to take up might possibly earn me extra kudos, or more adequately define me). Indians, it seemed to me, were inordinately less preoccupied with affirming their individuality. And yet, I felt, they could also be remarkably egotistical. Here, for example, both jhulas (bridges), Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula, are footbridges, and thus strictly out of bounds for motor vehicles of any description. By traffic police declaration. And yet, there is a constant flow, in both directions, of scooters and motorbikes, that deafen you with the constant blaring of their horns, hinder and obstruct the progress of pedestrians, and generally speaking behave as if they owned the space. They certainly claim right of way with an impeccable lack of scruples. Once, pinned to the left side of Ram Jhula by a voluminous and unattractive couple on a Vespa (it deserved better), I turned to a young father behind me. He had scooped his small son onto his shoulders, out of the way of marauding wheels, and I asked him, “Why don’t they just walk like everyone else?”

He shrugged, and said, “Actually, motorbikes are forbidden on this bridge. But this is India….”

My question had been real though. I could see no possible logic to riding across into Ram Jhula, for once you have cleaved your path across the bridge, passage is no less difficult in the crowded streets on the other side. Just how, I wondered, did straddling an engine on wheels make life simpler?

Now, many years later, it occurred to me that interpreting such conduct as selfish might simply be another projection of a conditioned mind. I did not, after all, feel I detected any deliberate disregard for other people. Nor any conscious intent to impede their comings and goings. Everyone simply went about their day choosing the path of least effort, for their own greatest convenience. As such, it was clear that a person’s own priorities took precedence. But it was not expected anyone else would act any differently. And in a country of so many people, one was bound to be on the receiving end of inconvenience far more often than one was causing it. Maybe what I perceived as public nuisances were no more than mere components of a situation, instantly recognized, acknowledged, and then dropped. And whereas I’d grown up with a modicum of public orderliness as the norm, perhaps there were other models. For it must be said, that a kind of spontaneous, spur of the moment order, does emerge from the apparent free-for-all in India’s busy places, (though this may not be immediately obvious if you’re attempting to queue for a train ticket).

Such thoughts quickly dissolved as I emerged by the waterfront, and made my way down to the beach. For a beach is what there is between the two bridges, with large, mostly smooth rocks to be sure, but also sizeable expanses of soft, fine, sand, the colour of shortbread. It was dotted with families and groups of friends, all keen to commune with Mother Ganga and cool off in her waters. Since monsoon has begun in many places upstream, the water level is high, the current quick, and the water opaque and muddy. But a faint breeze swept the banks, carrying with it that soft, freshwater smell, that seems to purify the air and refresh the soul. The men bathe mainly by stripping to their shorts or underpants, while the women enter the water dressed exactly as they are. Some, perhaps, choose the day’s wardrobe for the occasion, but the only concession I have seen to a woman’s bathing ritual was that of a solitary lady, tucked away at the end of a ghat in the twilight, who had wrapped her sari beneath her armpits, thus revealing naked shoulders, on which droplets of Ganga water fell from her glistening greying hair. Small children often bathe naked, though not always. All in all, it makes for a colourful and soothing scene. Cows wander here as they do everywhere, though I have yet to ascertain their access routes, having seen none negociating the steep steps above the ghats. I still saw no foreigners among the bathers that evening. Nevertheless, the merriment and ablutions proceeded all around me, as I continued unnoticed through the crowd. Until, that is, I chose to sit on a rock, and soak up the scene at my leisure. As if on cue, a family of four rushed over to me, brandishing an iPhone and requesting a photo. Their invitation meant not that I should take a snapshot of them, but that I might lend myself to being photographed in their company. First, a young man sat himself down eagerly to my right, and after a picture had been taken, a young lad, hesitant at first, squeezed in between us, tucking his wet and bony shoulder into my ribs, and grinning up to his ears. They then made way for a youngish woman, who came and sat shyly at the end of the rock, avoiding eye contact with me and leaving enough space between us for the wingspan of a small plane. Finally, a paternal figure came over, and put an end to potential air traffic by occupying the said space, and the photo session was over. But not before the young man had asked me where I came from, my age, if I was married, and so on.

There was a time when these interrogations would annoy me, in particular after I’d been through the whole process more times than I cared to count. What business was it of strangers to enquire of my personal details? And what difference could it possibly make to them? Furthermore, why did my Western mug have to end up enshrined in the photo library of umpteen foreign phones? But this too I had come to perceive differently. And it wasn’t because of a difference in customs. Or even because here in India I was a mildly exotic presence. No, I saw I had been the victim of a simple misconception: that this physical form of mine is my own property. Or, to put it another way, that I belong to myself.

I rose and left, pursuing my solitary stroll, until the beach gave way to a bend in the river. As I turned around, I remembered how, just a day or two before, not far from this stretch of bank, I had stumbled upon a set of naturally flat rocks, that someone had daubed with a kind of clay, to form a platform. Intrigued, I had absent-mindedly begun to cross it when a voice startled me. A corpulent, matronly figure, amply swathed in bright fabric, was seated at the far end and gesturing to painted words at my feet: “No shoes.” I dutifully retreated, and began skirting the edifice, but the woman was not done, pointing instead at a painted rock, bearing the inscription, “This is holy place. No picnic.” Here, at least, was one person intent on keeping order. What she feared I might possibly picnic on, I wearing just shorts and a singlet and carrying only a water bottle, was a mystery to me. I would have had to bring down manna from heaven – now that would have made the spot holy indeed. As I retraced my steps and headed home, I mused upon the holiness of Ganga’s beach. It was not too sacrosanct for cows to shit on. Nor for men to use the bushes twenty yards up from the water’s edge as a urinal. Nor for a smattering of litter (though some of this was carried and deposited by the Ganges herself). And what was so unholy about eating anyway? After all, what more common offering is there to Hindu Gods than sweets, and what more self-indulgent food is there than sugar?

Yes, I thought to myself, there is still a great deal I don’t understand about India and her children.

At the same time, I realized I was perfectly comfortable with this deficiency. Perhaps some of India had rub off on me after all.

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