Deep breath and then just let it go. Yes, it’s India, maddening India. Magical one day, appallingly confronting the next. Always pushing your buttons, and asking who you might really become if you’re prepared to go to the limits of your patience, push beyond the fear, and discover in the seething humanity, sensory assault, not to mention violent illness that marks every visit, a passage to something far more divine. And the holiest gateway? Varanasi, the ancient and sacred Hindu city on the edge of the river Ganges, home of sadhus, gurus, the ultimate destination of Hindu pilgrims, and the place where many Indians come to die.
On one level this post is a year old, a snapshot taken on 48 degree days in the closing days of June, the monsoon rains alarmingly late.
But on a personal level, it feels like now; Varanasi enters my slipstream of dreams and memory often. India is like that. Years before I arrived here, I’d developed a fascination for mystics, and with sadhus in particular – those souls that give up daily life to choose the ascetic path, living outside society, and at its mercy. Ascending the ladder to the divine through meditation, abstinence, self denial and a good quantity of hashish. I thought they might hold answers. I thought Varanasi was a key.
Problem is, India has a crazy sense of humour. Every expectation and plan will be thwarted. Any attempt at control will unravel, either by the chaos on the road in front of you, or falling apart yourself. Let’s call it the test.
The test starts on arrival at the Varanasi train station. Wading through hundreds of touts, and drivers all fighting for your business (often in scuffles), but not one of whom are actually prepared to take you to the hotel you’ve booked because they won’t get their commission. Oh, and the police assigned to the station are no help at all. Congratulate yourself if you make it to your hotel without a detour to the driver’s preferred choice. Give yourself a gold star if you have to navigate a sleeping cow blocking the crumbling narrow street, and manage not to step in cow shit. If you’re there in summer your hotel may be under renovation. There may also be power outages. To the beat of those pick axes, breaking down the fourth wall of your hotel, you may find it smashes something in you, too. The only peace on offer is inner. Yep, time to surrender.
Step outside for the first tentative exploration of the town. It is an obstacle course of silk sellers and fortune tellers, high level security around holy temples and beggars appearing from out of nowhere, their desperate grip on life distressingly clear. Then there is the fascinating trades, the barter between temple barbers who have shorn hundreds of heads in the name of offerings, and hairsellers, who turn that sacrifice into profit, as bags of long black hair make its way to Europe for hair extensions in top salons. And then there’s all the lies that were invented from the necessity to fleece tourists. Somewhere between the beats of time Varanasi style there is a truth about living and dying, of divinity, you remind yourself, but first one must wade through a sea of illusion, and the currency of survival, to get to the river’s edge.
And there you meet death. The burning ghats, about three addresses down from the Swimming Club’s HQ, are on fire day and night, cremating the shrouded dead. On the shoreline, on a small pontoon, the ash is piled high. These remains of lives – of births, love, illness, experience and memories – are returned to the Ganges, to be carried by the currents of this most sacred of rivers.
But the river is being loved to death. Choked by pollution, dead fish floating by with eyes popping out of sockets, and the occasional floating body, or cow, slowly travelling downstream. Yet there are many who will tell you this river is the elixir of life. And many more living in it, washing, bathing, swimming in mundane routines alongside the ritual and ceremony.
Every night the ganga aarti takes place. At sunset the blessing of the Mother Ganges commences with the clang of a bell. The crowds gather on the ghats, day in, day out, and the boats jostle for prime position. All around us there are families, pilgrims: mother, son, father, grandmother, cupping holy water, and drizzling it over their skulls.
The candles are lit, and drums shuffle.
As night falls, the intensity of sound and spread of fire takes this eternal city back to the heart of itself. The traditions that give daily markers to the passage of time are alien to me, but are clearly of deep importance to the pilgrims who have travelled so far to be here in this moment. Soon we’re enveloped in a staircase of notes, chiming insistently up to the border of sound. It looks like a hundred years ago, and it will happen again tomorrow, and the next day, and soon after I post this now.
I don’t find the key in all of this, but it’s mesmerising nonetheless. I come home and I swear I’ll never go back. Five weeks of India, a second stint, is enough. What am I seeking? But months later, India reemerges like an eternal memory, and I know I’ll go back. I can see Leh, in the Himalayas, just around the bend.
In the meantime this is what I cook as a way back to India.
Prawn and Cashew Curry
Both recipes adapted from How to Cook Indian by Sanjeev Kapoor
20 prawns, peeled and deveined
15 cloves garlic, peeled
5 cm piece of ginger
8 whole black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
5cm cinnamon stick, broken
1/4 cup coriander, chopped
2 green chillies, stemmed
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large red onions, chopped
2 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
4 tsp tamarind pulp
2 tsp table salt
Put 8 cloves of garlic, the ginger, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, half the coriander, and the chillies in a food processor and add 1/4 cup of water. Process to a fine paste.
Crush the remaining garlic. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat, and add the garlic. Saute for 3 minutes, then add the onion and saute for 5 minutes. Add the spice mixture and saute for a further 5 minutes. Add the chilli powder and turmeric, and stir for 30 seconds. Add the tamarind pulp, salt and 1 1/2 cups of water. Stir and bring to the boil.
Add the prawns and cashews and simmer for 8 minutes.
Garnish with coriander, and serve immediately with basmati rice and/or chapati.
This is a northern India dish.
800g of chicken - breasts, thighs, or full bird skinned and jointed*
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 cm cinnamon stick
4 or 5 cloves
4 or 5 green cardamom pods
4 medium red onions, grated or finely chopped
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 tbsp crushed garlic
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tbsp ground coriander
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp red chilli powder
4 medium tomatoes pureed or ?
1 1/2 tsp of table salt
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp coriander, chopped
*Whilst the recipe suggests you buy a whole chicken and cut it into pieces, I’ve adapted to western circumstances where you’re more likely to be a tray of chicken thighs or breasts at the supermarket. I’m also paranoid about the cook through time of chicken, so in my version I’ve cut the chicken breasts into pieces. Having said all that, I’m sure your instinct with chicken and cooking times is well developed, so go for your life.
Heat oil in a medium sized saucepan over medium heat. Add cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and saute for 1 minute. When the spices are fragrant, add the onions, and saute for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden. Add ginger and garlic, saute for 2 to 3 minutes, and keep stirring.
Add the turmeric, coriander, cumin, and chilli powder. Stir well. Then add the tomatoes, and saute for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring well. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes or until the oil rises to the top.
Add the chicken pieces and salt, and stir. Increase the heat to high, and saute for 5 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cupes water and bring to the boil. Lower the heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
Transfer to a serving dish or 4 plates immediately. Sprinkle with the garam masala, and garnish with the coriander. Serve with rice and/or naan.