Harold Jaffe’s Dispatches from India – November 15, 2015

Tulsi Ghat, Benares
Sunday, 11/15/15, late afternoon

Untouchables with mobiles.
Cluster of dusky underfed humans, 20 or more, barefoot, rags on
their heads or faces glide by noiselessly, except for three or four on
their mobiles shouting into the phones in Hindi.

Self-confessed electronic utopian, Indian PM Modi, envisions a
“digital India.”
The resident macaque monkeys have not cooperated; twice they
have eaten the fiber-optic cables strung along the banks of the
Ganges.

Everywhere are incongruous signs of digital India:
Cozy Innerwear         Trade Wings Biryani
Free WIFI                     Internet Cafe

Close to where I am sitting on a backless stone platform an
untouchable beggar woman, black and tiny as a child, lies folded on
the ground with her small empty alms pail in one extended hand.

Gandhi renamed the untouchables “harijans,” meaning children of
god.
I watch a barefoot untouchable boy pass by in a t-shirt which reads:
Thank God I’m an Atheist.

More soldiers than I’ve seen elsewhere in Kashi walk back and forth
along the ghat.
They wear dusty olive Raj-era uniforms and carry long outdated
American M1 carbine rifles on their shoulders.
Neither the soldiers nor the weapons seem war-ready.

This is the week in which two major massacres took place in Paris
and Lebanon, allegedly instigated by terrorist Muslims.
Is the display of Indian army an oblique Hindu response?
The Hindu PM has a long anti-Muslim reputation which began when
he was Chief Minister of Gujarat State, Gandhi’s birthplace.

A man walks slowly toward me in the common Indian manner, one
hand clasping the other wrist behind his back.
He is gray haired with a scruffy gray beard.
Barechested with a white dhoti and rubber sandals.
He has the horizontal Shiva-worship lines painted on his forehead.
Namaste, he says, folding his hands together with a slight bow,
sitting beside me.
He wears several rings on the right hand, which I’ve observed on
other Hindu males.
The rings have an astrological significance.
Namaste, I reply.

You are from?
Switzerland, I say, not wanting to bring the US into the discussion,
and unexpectedly thinking of Giacometti, one of my favorite artists,
born in Switzerland, but lived and worked in the 14th quartier of Paris
for 40-odd years.
Once, when he was about to get run over by a small Citroen,
Giacometti said to himself: Finally, something is happening to me.

How do you like this place? The Hindu man asks.
Familiar question and nearly always phrased in that way.
Interesting, I say.
He swivels his head favorably but not without ambiguity.
You are a . . .
Medical doctor, I lie again. I am studying the recent outbreak of
dengue fever in northern India.
It takes a while for him to absorb this.
There is no fever in Kashi, he says, then stands and moves away.

I insulted him, though not deliberately.
There have been thousands of reported cases of dengue fever in
northern India.

Behind me to the left an unseen bird is clicking repeatedly in a small
densely-leaved fig tree.
I don’t recognize the sound, it is not a cheery click.
To the left of the tree a young barechested saddhu is intently,
meditatively washing a squat stone sculpture of the Shiva lingam.
Four or five older Hindus, almost naked, with the twice-born sacred
thread across their chests, are washing and praying in the Ganges
below.

A little girl, maybe five years old, dark-skinned, low-caste, is
standing barefoot on the stone ghat steps facing the river playing
notes on a wooden flute.

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