The love issue 2018: Love in Varanasi
An original short story, set in the city of loss and rebirth, by the PEN/Hemingway Award- and Folio Prize-winning author
The man and woman were in Varanasi on holiday. The man was from India but lived in America while the woman was Irish and lived in Ireland. They had been seeing each other for almost six months, flying back and forth across the ocean, and had set themselves a deadline of a half-year to decide whether they wanted to continue. And now, this time was nearly up.
They arrived in Varanasi late one winter afternoon. The sky was dim and their boat carried them along the river, passing cremation fires on the ghats—men standing stunned and grief-struck by one burning body, while, nearby, another body burnt and another family stood looking astonished; and then, just beyond all this suffering, perhaps a hundred metres away, men and women did laundry while little boys fished.
The man was the one who was going to be making the decision about their relationship. The woman appeared to have already made one. “Let us try another three months," she offered. For the man, though, there was something intolerable about this approach. His marriage had ended because his wife was not interested in physical intimacy and for years the marriage had continued because he had thought things would change between them. Now, the very idea of accepting a relationship where a deprivation existed since things might alter seemed a repeat of a mistake that had already proved devastating.
Their hotel was a palace on the ghats. The boat pulled up before the stone steps. A portly man in a uniform helped the woman off the boat, she was smiling and happy. Watching her, her boyfriend—what a strange term to use for a 46-year-old divorcee—thought how much he respected her. She was attractive, slender, with long curly hair, though not as lovely as many women he had slept with. What compelled him about her was who she was as a person. She could disagree in the kindest manner. She could stand her ground and leave him feeling grateful for her resistance. As she climbed the stone steps, he followed, and her torso was so still that it magnified the sway of her hips so that they were like a bell tolling.
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The fact that their relationship might be ending made everything they saw together more meaningful.
The days were sunny and in Varanasi’s alleyways, so narrow that it astonished him how a cow was able to wander through, let alone the scooters going around it, they saw flyers pasted on to walls. These were for missing people, usually old men and women who had perhaps tried to take a bath in the river and had been yanked away by the current. “Do they make you think about your brother?" he asked her.
“Yes." They were standing beside each other and she was looking at a flyer that was face level. Her brother had committed suicide by drowning himself in a river. “You think the not knowing is the worst part," she said. “Then you learn what has happened and you would do anything to go back to when you didn’t know because in some ways if you didn’t know, he was still a little bit alive." She twined her fingers in his and he realized that this woman from Ireland probably understood the Indian families who had put up the flyers better than he did.
They also went to an outdoor akhada. The akhada was a rectangular yard with some old-fashioned weight-lifting equipment and, in a corner, a dirt wrestling field. It was around 2pm and the dirt of the wrestling field had the chopped, hoed look wrestlers leave it with when they finish for the day. He explained to her how the wrestlers, as a sign of respect for the dirt that they struggle on, hoe the field when they leave.
As they stood there talking, a young boy, perhaps 10 or 12, entered the akhada. He stood against a cement wall smiling shyly at them.
“Do you want to shake hands with the foreign lady?" the man asked.
The boy looked down.
“He would like to shake your hand," the man told the woman.
The woman went to the young boy and extended her hand. “Do you exercise here?"
“Is it hard?"
The boy nodded again.
The man watched them and realized that when he was nervous, he often became teasing, while this woman he cared for could just enter the emotional space of whomever she was talking to.
As soon as the boy had shaken the woman’s hand, he spun around and ran away.
“You would make a good father," the woman said.
“I am a jerk and an idiot," he said, feeling a surge of contempt towards himself.
The woman came and put her head on his chest. He realized that what he had said probably rose from frustration at his own confusion and from disgust at not being braver and so able to tolerate a long-distance relationship. This self-condemnation, he understood, was foolish but still it rang inside him.
The woman liked to take photographs. She had brought a professional-quality camera with her to Varanasi.
Here are the things she photographed:
On the river, a small white boat, almost a rowboat, overcrowded. The men and women on it throwing up bits of bread. White birds swooping down to grab these. And past this boat, an empty river, and on the other side of this river, a vast, desolate sandy beach.
A chowkidar in a blue uniform standing on a roof, his arms behind him. Beyond is a billboard of a giant woman so that it looks like the woman is staring at the man.
A small dark room with small dark men buried beneath looms. The light that enters makes the silk sari being woven shine and the green and gold of it lies on the face of the men too.
The man watched the woman compose these shots. She took a shot and then showed him how she could cut the image to make it seem more alive. With a slight adjustment, the chowkidar looks like he is in dialogue with the woman on the billboard. A change in angle can make the men in the dark room appear to be in awe of the sheet of cloth.
The more photographs she took, the more alive the woman became. She moved more quickly and composed shots more easily. Watching her, he had the sense that he was seeing her mind working. This was the first time he had seen this part of her intelligence. Till now, she had been smart about responding to things he had said or they had seen together. Now, he saw her shaping the world, snipping this and that out of it so her vision of what was interesting came through. This new thing felt like a fresh reason to admire her.
The man was looking for reasons to stop loving this woman and yet all he found was new reasons to do so. Lying in bed one night, holding her hand, he tried to picture all the times he had wished not to be involved with her. These were always in the US. He would be travelling for work and enter a hotel room and see a wide empty bed and feel bereft at the reminder of how his bed was usually empty. He would experience some difficulty, some rejection at work or some legal problem regarding his ex-wife, and he would want to hold a person or be held so that the solidity of touch would act as a reminder that his life was more than these difficulties. The fact that their relationship was going to end just because it was not convenient did not seem reasonable. Surely, romance demanded more. In response to this, a part of him wanted to find fault in the woman. He was too old, though, to generate excuses like this. The woman was wonderful.
He ended their relationship on their last day in Varanasi. It seemed important and honourable to do it face to face instead of over the phone.
After breakfast they went up to their room and as she packed, he went and sat down by a window that overlooked the Ganga.
“I have something serious to say."
“All right," the woman said. She was wearing a green shift dress and, looking frightened, she came and sat down across from him.
“I can’t do this," the man said.
“Okay," the woman said and started crying. The tears ran down her face. “Thank you for showing me the respect to tell me in person."
“I love you," he said.
“I know. I love you too."
She lifted up her hands and put them over her face.
He started crying also.
“You know that I respect you too much to not respect your decision. If you change your mind, please let me know."
He didn’t answer because he was afraid that if he spoke he would start sobbing.
“We have to go. I should finish packing." She stood up and the tears streamed down even faster.
He remained sitting as she packed. While she worked, she periodically wiped her face.
They left Varanasi around the same time they had arrived. Birds were wheeling in the pearly sky as they stood in the prow of the boat. Again they passed the burning ghats. Again they passed the men and women who washed their clothes near the mourning families.
Life was going on and for the man and woman on the boat, standing together but lost in separate thoughts, their life too would go on.
Akhil Sharma is the author of Family Life, a New York Times Best Book of the Year and winner of the International Dublin Literary Award and the Folio Prize. His latest book is A Life Of Adventure And Delight.
Akhil Sharma’s stay was hosted by Brijrama Palace, Varanasi, and organized by RARE Destinations & Experiences.