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 It's India Time

January 17, 2000
Varanasi, India

"India has no time," said my Hindi teacher Habiji. "We don't even have a word for it in Hindi." The Hindi way of asking for the time (kitne bajiye hai?) means, literally translated: how many chimes is it? A leftover from the more than 200 years of British rule that ended in 1947; and with it, leaving behind, among other things, thousands of clock towers.

I agree with Habiji. This morning when I my alarm went off I lay in bed waking up and trying my damnedest to figure out what day of the week it was. The electricity had been out for half a day; my room has no windows; and, my indigo equipped sport watch was out of reach.

Nathaniel, Chester and I arrived in Varanasi, India on the 8th of January, a Saturday. From the moment we hopped off the night train from Nepal time stopped.

Walking through Varanasi in the morning, weaving through the streets and up and down beside the river Ganges, the city woke up. Varanasi is like an old man, it creeks and shuffles about till the sun warms its joints into a bustling, sinewy machine. Not only did we arrive in Varanasi in the early, early morning, we arrived for the start of the Muslim holiday called Eid, a three day celebration of the passing of Ramadan, a full month of fasting during the hours between sunrise and sunset. On top of Eid the city was in the throws of an electric company strike. Something that's not going to be settled any time soon. India's government, as a way of stopping power stealing, meter tampering and baksheesh (a loser form of bribery), is handing the electricity to the hands of private corporations, privatizing as a form of control. Because of this transition, and because the workers have walked out and the solders haven't moved in, the power is out from 8:00am to 1:00pm every day. And this, as far as I can tell, has been stretched to sometime around 8:00am to sometime around 5:00pm with intermittent outages for the remaining hours. Still, beneath the crowds of partying Muslims and powerless streets there was something stronger controlling the city.

On day two or three I sat in an internet café waiting for the email to download at 9 kilobytes a second when I heard a group of men walking and chanting down the ally towards where I sat. Neither Krishna nor his brother Ashish, the owners of the shop, seemed surprised; they looked at me for my reaction. I turned back to the screen, nothing had changed. The second I turned back to the ally the chanters chanting "Ram Nam Sat Hai!" The Name of God is Truth!" crossed by carrying wood and cloth gurney, a body dressed in golden red wraps on top. They were heading to the river.

I paid for my twenty minutes rest in front of a blank screen and followed after the procession.

When you emerge from the tangle of passageways that make up Varanasi and step into view of the river Ganges (Indians call it Ganga) you can't help but pause. The Ganga is the most holy of Hindu sites. Among the five ways to achieve salvation and thereby stop the cycle of rebirth to find heaven in the Hindu religion is to die and have your body cremated on the banks of the Ganga. Pilgrims not only come from all over India to die near the Ganga they also come to bathe in the water that will purify their souls.

Author Erik Newby writes:
The banks of the Ganga in Benaras [Varanasi, also known as Kashi] are the scene of great bathing ceremonies. Bathers can be seen engaging in a multiplicity of homages to the Ganga: drinking her icy waters, which are nevertheless sweet to the taste; launching on her bosom little boat-shaped baskets of stitched leaves containing marigolds, rose-petals and sweets; offering her milk; taking water in their cupped hands and letting it run through them three times, making a libation and saying the prayer to the Seven Sacred Rivers, which is obligatory on every devout Hindu to recite at the time of taking a bath.

So it's common, when you're pausing to take in the Ganga, to see a body burning on a funeral pyre and five yards away, a flock of people bathing and washing clothes. It's all feverishly accepted and condoned.

Machu Dom, a member of a chitri family who oversees the second burning ghat, or river steps, tells travelers walking by, "Burning and learning. Cremation education. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. Wind to wind. Spirits go to nirvana. Human being, everybody, should collect good karma" I asked him about the other things you can collect by bathing, and pointed to the adjacent bathers. I got a look that said, why ask? "By washing in the Ganga you purify yourself. You are clean." I'm not sure if this was an Indian joke or not but Machu laughed till he was blue in the face and meandered away.

The Ganga has been studied for years, its bacteria levels taken and warnings been posted. By asking around it's the opinion that the river is much cleaner now than a few years back. Certain restrictions have been made on dumping "things" (those "things" being half-burned bodies, dead cattle, chemicals, etc.). But, no matter what the tests show there's no doubt that the river is the heart of the city, controlling the beat to which life flows through the area.

I had a few minutes before I had to leave for my Hindi lesson. I sat up on the roof of my hotel and stared at the Ganga, trying to figure out this time warp I'd fallen into. It was a Monday. Time had slipped by ten days without my noticing. The artery called the Ganga sailed on carrying any sort of matter, what of no concern to it. It's this nonchalant attitude that seeps into the country. Everyone has their job, more remnants of the the British, so the river too, has its. I couldn't decide if the Ganga was taking time like it took the cremated, or giving time like the purification of its bathers. I looked at my watch and hurried off to class.

Sarah Reed Bargren
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