I am sitting on the ghats in Varanasi, food poisoned, watching the sun come up over the Ganges. The contents of my stomach have stopped trying to escape from my body for the moment, and I am enjoying that moment by sipping on a chai.
The Ganges at dawn, and Varanasi at dawn: breathtaking? The word doesn’t quite do it justice. You just need to go. It’s the most beautiful cess pool in the world. And it is a cess pool. Shit on the ground, in the alleyways, piss dribbling down to the river–goats and cows and dogs and humans shitting and pissing whenever the mood strikes. Mostly-naked men washing away their sins in the fecal water–water so filled with shit and piss that marine life can’t sustain itself in parts of it. Bodies burning on the river bank, the remains (fully burned, or not) thrown into the water to release their former inhabitants from the cycle of life and death. It’s hideously filthy and an epic beauty, Varanasi is.
It’s kind of one of a kind.
And so it’s my last morning in the holy city and I feel like dying, because I’m sick of being violently ill. I feel like dying but I’m sitting on the ghats, drinking chai from my favorite riverside chai wallah, and smoking a cigarette.
An old man approaches.
The old man wants rupees, naturally. He must be at least seventy, he walks with a limp and carries a cane, he has an adorable face with a pug nose and crooked glasses. He’s dressed in orange, as so many of the old beggars are; and I can’t tell if it’s because they’re a special breed of holy beggars, or if it’s an evolutionary tic of the beggar classes in general to look holy for the white people so that the white people are more likely to give them money.
Anyway. It doesn’t matter. The cute old man wants my rupees and I’m not going to give him any.
Then he points to the chai man.
“Chai?” he says.
“Chai,” I reply, matter-of-factly, pointing at my glass.
“Chai?” he points again.
And here, his face becomes so puppy-dog-like and filled with sadness that I cave and ask him, “You want a chai, uncle?”
Yes, yes, yes he says.
I beckon the wallah, point to the old man, and nod. The wallah pours him a chai. I pay for the two of us and smile at the old man, get up to walk back to my hotel, where I’ll probably vomit again. The old man is soaking up the sun with his little twig legs crossed, smiling, and rocking back and forth on the stones.
“Chai baba,” he says to me as I walk past him. “Chai baba, chai. Chai baba, chai.”
He seems truly happy with his tea and his sunrise, and I’m truly happy to have contributed to his happiness. It’s what one might call a win-win.
And in a few years I suppose the old man will die here, be burned with the rest of them, and have his ashes strewn in the Ganges. In a few years he’ll be free. In a few years I will envy him.
But not right now.