Come with me to Haridwar. Let’s go up the narrow streets of shops with the crowds that stall and surge and weave around the rickshaw stopped, part before the scooter or auto horns. Let’s look in at the little shops crammed with cloths, with bracelets stacked in glitzy towers under fluorescent lights. Walk past the man selling peacock feathers, past the steaming pots of water for eggs, for corn, the mounded heaps of spices. Under the train overpass, and up the lane, a watery sludge running down the gutter, and under a table of food alive with flies, we come to the cable car queue, a teeming mass of sari and polo shirts and hollering hand waving.
Wait and lose count of the people, wait and let the sounds and the smells and the heat run over you. Don’t fight them. Don’t. You can’t win, or begin to win against it. On the move again, through a door, down a corridor, on to the gondolas in fours we swing up the hill. Look at the view: the city, the Ganges, the temple tops and under us a road criss-crossing up – scooters and blue tarpaulin covered stalls. A moments peace, this, hanging in the gondola before we emerge at the top and merge back into the crowds always pushing ahead.
Is this a train station or a temple? The funneling tunnels of corridors and high metal barriers we squeeze down and emerge in a confusing mess of shops, under a roof. Take off your shoes and feel the grit underfoot and walk up to the ticket taker, and press on down a dark lane, a shrine in one wall, bright with flowers and flame: Gensha and Shiva. The shrine jockey tries to coax donations from the passersby but is mostly ignored. The locals know that good God stuff is further on, up the stairs, where there is a jam to be blessed.
Slip past the blessing of smoke and sticks being waved and the brazier of fire with rupee in buckets and come to room with pressed metal decoration all over a shrine and its niche. People push forward to give money and receive a handful of rice. The rice is blessed I assume although a lot of it ends up on the floor trampled underfoot with flowers and chippie packets as we pour down the steps. Shiva in a bright red room festooned with flowers, each shrine with its people seeking money for a blessing, a quick quid pro quo, salvation for a buck, no questions asked, money down. Then Hanuman, then nine more. All at a clip. Bursts of chanting, shouting, angry remonstrating. Somehow we are leaving again after bring dragged backwards through a cabaret of colour, sound and smell we are swinging down on the gondola.
Come to the evening prayer at the Ganges. Come and sit on the wide stone banks with the thousands of others and wait. See the white, grey water rushing past and the far bank of tiered platforms and the people all across them. Men in quasi-police uniforms blow their whistles and organise the crowds so they are crammed and not bobbing up too high and blocking the view. The dismay of hearing we will be here for an hour before the ceremony ends, and then the letting go of that and the sinking down into it. Close your eyes and listen, let your hearing expand out. Hear the thousands talking, laughing, crying, calling, some great organic beast in shuddering life, giving off a great heat, sweating and breathing together as the light fades away and the chanting begins. A steady Sanskrit from texts 5000 years old rises up, and the crowd calls back and raises its hands as a woman comes with yellow and red dye to anoint our foreheads with bindi. No money, she says. Blessings and peace, she says. The chant is “shanti” for a moment: peace. On and on with the chanting, a steadiness against the descending night, and the surging river that tumbles urgently between the two banks thick with worshipers.
With the dark the fires are lit. Fire, the purest thing, into the river, which purifies, the fire on the water at Haridwar where a drop of nectar fell from Shiva and people come to have their sins washed away.
We wash our feet in the Ganges. It is cold. My feet feel better but I may still be damned. Afterwards we walk past lines of beggars, some without limbs, they ask for money but I do not give. What may have been washed away is quickly replaced.
Our final day: eating McDonalds in Delhi. Women begging with newborns outside; the affluent Indians inside. The beggars are hardened and aggressive. The diners are hardened too. I’ve gotten better at saying no to the poor. Like that’s a good thing. But they sit around in my head those people: on the ground, prosthetic limb, a baby on the hip, no hands, twisted on the station platform, lying emptied of life on the footpaths. The dignity of man. The words die on your lips and taste like ash. When no one cares about you then you turn into a ghost.
We are passing through this place like apparitions. We are at the hotel having showers, food. A bus, a plane, a thousand miles away.