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A Poet's Progress, Features, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: Varanasi, Night and the Following Day

sectitle-exseries26 01 The Varanasi Ghats, Seen from the GangesThe Veranasi Ghats, Seen from the Ganges

April 20, Varanasi, Walking to the Ganges

Returning from the Ganges after the evening rituals, I work my way through the crowd and am accosted by a young boy selling postcards for 100 rupees. I assure him I have no money, which is true. Most thefts occur in the crowds on the way to the ghats and I’ve been advised to leave everything in my room. After I pass he says, “Nice hair.” I turn around and smile and he strokes his upper lip with his fingers—“Nice moustache. Are you enjoying Varanasi?” He catches up with me, and takes me by the elbow, pushing me through the crowd. “Where are you from? Which do you prefer, your home or Varanasi?” “I prefer my home. And you?” “I love Varanasi because it is my home, because it is the only place I will ever know.” “Maybe someday you will visit the United States and you can choose which one you like better too.” “No, I am very poor. I will never be going to America. But I prefer my life in Varanasi. It is best to prefer what you have, especially when you have no choice.” He tells me his name is Babu, which means doll.

At one point I become separated from my friends and rush forward, thinking they have passed me. No, Babu says, they are back here. He is pointing behind us, back into the stalls. All I can see is a swarming crowd underneath swinging yellow incandescent bulbs. If I go back there I will be completely lost and unable to find my way out if I can’t find my friends. No, I tell Babu, I’m sure they are up ahead. I begin walking quickly and Babu shouts after me, “No, sir, look, there they are.” I turn around and he’s right—I can see Naveen’s head above the crowd. “Thanks, Babu—you saved me from making a big mistake. If I had any money on me, I’d give it to you.” He asks me how long I will be in Varanasi and when I’ll be back to the ghats—tomorrow morning, sunrise? He will look for me then. “I will give you 100 rupees if you can find me,” I tell him. But after I say goodbye it seems unlikely that he will be able to find me in the crowd tomorrow morning.

26 02 Puja at the Lakshmi TemplePuja at the Lakshmi Temple

April 21, Varanasi

A young girl, barely a teenager, is carrying a baby. As I pass, she lifts the baby and I can see that she is carrying a dead baby. She is carrying a lifeless baby, I tell Naveen when I am back on the bus. But we are in Varanasi, where people come to cremate their dead. Is she asking for money for cremation? No, he tells me. They do not cremate anyone under 12 years of age. “It’s just a dead baby. It’s probably not even hers.”

26 03 Varanasi at NightVaranasi at Night

It takes five to six hours for a body to burn—about the time from sunset to sunrise during the non-monsoon months, when most cremations occur. And it has to be a fire that gives off a very hot and constant heat. Sugar is thrown into the fire to increase the temperature, especially during the monsoons, when it is difficult to keep a body burning.

26 04 My Tuk-Tuk Back Panel, VaranasiMy Tuk-Tuk Back Panel, Varanasi

The dead go to their cremation looking as they would for a wedding. It would be impolite not to display all they have accomplished on earth as they return to it as ashes, including their wedding bands and nose-rings and earrings and necklaces and ankle bracelets and toe rings and navel rings.

Gold doesn’t burn, and after a body is burnt there are small pieces of gold from fillings and jewelry mixed with the ashes that are dumped into the Ganges, and sometimes a spouse will put a gold piece in the corpse’s mouth, in case some payment is needed on the other side. Young Untouchable boys sift through the riverbottom to find stray bits of gold and jewelry. What they are doing is not considered sacrilegious or ignoble. No one would want to wear a dead person’s jewelry. It would be seen as taunting Death and would not end well.

26 05 Burning at the GhatsBurning at the Ghats

Babu finds me. I have brought 200 rupees and I give him one 100-rupee bill for helping me last night. Then I offer him another 100 for a book of postcards. No, he snaps, 200 rupees for the postcards. I only have100 rupees. It’s up to you. Okay, okay, he says, 100 rupees.

A young girl who offered me postcards a moment before comes up to us, complaining, “Hey, I just offered you postcards and you said you didn’t want any, and then you buy some from him.” “I bought some from him because I promised him I would. I was lost and he helped me find my friends. So I’m rewarding him today.” She shows me her bindis and postcards. No, thank you, I have no more money. I show her my empty pockets and she takes off.

I see blood on Babu’s pants leg and t-shirt and he has a scarf wrapped around his forehead–none of which were there the night before. What happened to you? I tripped and fell on my way back after helping you out, he tells me. I tell him I’m sorry. He says that’s okay, it’s not my fault. I say I know it’s not my fault, but I’m still sorry that it happened. It is not your problem, he tells me, you are a good man. But I have no money. That’s okay, he says.

When we reach the bus I turn to shake his hand and thank him again and say goodbye. That’s okay I will wait. You can ask your friends.

Several minutes later I look back through the window and he is standing at the door, waiting. The bus won’t be leaving for another ten minutes. I close the blinds and crouch in the back seat until we are several blocks away.

26 06 Shiva's and Chagall's CowsShiva’s and Chagall’s Cows

Modern Non-Classical Music of India Part IV

Georges Garfvarenz: Hasschish Party

No information. From cassette “Indian Underground”

World Service: Skanking for Jullandar

No information.  From cassette “Indian Underground”

Rama & Bally Sagoo: Rema Laung Gawacha

No information. From cassette “Indian Underground”

Tigerstyle with Bikram Singh: Taakre

Bikram Singh is a bhangra singer who moved from Punjab, India, for Queens, New York, when he was twelve years old. In 2005, his second album American Jugni was the best-selling album in the UK and the track “Kawan” was named by BBC radio as the track of the year. He has worked with Wyclef and Das Rascist. He currently works as an attorney in NYC.

Tigerstyle are two classically trained musical brothers from a British Punjabi Sikh background who formed the bhangra group Desi Bombsquad Sound System in Glasgow, Scotland in 1997. They later changed their name to Tigerstyle, a form of Kung Fu.

Fusing Naked Beats: Serenity

See Newtopia column March 2013.

John McLaughlin & Miles from India: Miles from India

This album was produced by Bob Belden, who also produced Davis’ Sony/Columbia reissue box sets, who in this case worked with Indian keyboardist Louiz Banks to recreate songs from Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, and Kind of Blue with Indian classical and jazz musicians playing alongside several of Miles’ bandmembers on the original recordings.

Ananda Shankar: Snow Flower

See Newtopia column January 2013.

Kingsuk Biswas: K-Ascendant

Kingsuk Biswas is a Bedouin who began his musical career by playing guitar, bass, and percussion in post-punk bands that mixed funk with jazz and noise, and later gained popularity in the warehouse party scene in the ‘80s, before developing into an early member of the techno and experimental scene.

Lucky Ali: O Sanam

See Newtopia column February 2013.

Kiran Ahluwalia: Vo Kuch

Kiran Ahluwalia was born in India but migrated with her family to Canada while still a child. Trained in the financial services industry, she changed direction and returned to India to study singing ancient Persian and Punjabi ghazals (poems). She currently lives in NYC.

Article written by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.

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