Namastay, my friend. I hope this letter finds its way to you. I am sending it to Girdhari Lal because he's the only one I know who can read a little English. You know Girdhari--he lives in Shivala, near the temple where you do your daily puja. I would have sent it to you if I knew where you lived. It's strange to write not knowing for certain if you will ever see my letter, and if you do, if you will understand it. But that is how it's always been, and yet somehow, something usually manages to get through, though not always what I expected.
I typed my letter so anyone can read it to you, even if Girdhari can't. As you have seen, my handwriting is very bad. Do you wonder if I still hold my pen between my third and fourth fingers? Everyone on the Ganges--the boatmen, sweepers, dhobies, even the older schoolboys--corrected me those mornings I sat with you, while my American Bic pens, the ones you didn't want because they can't be refilled, dried up in the heat, one after the other. If I had only bought an Indian pen, instead of stubbornly clinging to the dozens of Bics I brought with me, thinking I would give them away to my new Indian friends, I would have written more. I never imagined they would all just dry up. You looked puzzled when I said they are thrown away. I can see why. They look so sturdy and full, even when the ink is gone.
Do you remember our Hindi lessons? You must be wondering about my progress. Three weeks of an Indian summer was only enough time to learn the words that made up our mornings. Bahut garmi, very hot weather. Everyone smiled to hear me say the obvious. And, of course, Bakri and bakra, male and female goats. They stripped young leaves off the lone peepul tree that shaded your puja spot, the little alcove off to the side of those long, steep steps down to Ganga. Baksheeah, what the children shouted, interrupting your prayers, stopping only when you scolded them or I turned my pockets inside out. Do they remember bubble gum ? They called it out as if it we're my name, "Hello, bubble gum, hello." I gave them the rest of it, two boxes worth, the day I left Banaras. For once, everybody got some without fighting. one of the older boys lined them up in the temple, in the shade, as if they were in school, while I passed out one piece at a time.
Is there a Hindi word for "photograph"? Everyone asked me for "photo" once they saw my camera, you in particular. You said some Frenchman had taken your picture and promised to send you a copy. I knew I could not break such a promise again, not after you greeted me every morning, offered me your sack to share, prayed or just rested while I wrote, and fended off the "monkey children," who pulled at my hair and clothes, fingered my sunglasses, and grabbed my pack, like the bold monkeys in Durga temple. I took so many photos. Yours, of course, two of them. You kept the straight-faced pose, more serious, you said, and left me the one where you're smiling. Maya, after her morning sweep. Ganga Ram, the boatman who hawked for the "famous" astrologer. The golden-faced tea seller, Kundan was his name, who didn't even try to look serious. I never saw his tea stall, only his five children, among dozens who ran wild, names I will never remember, so many of them with nothing or too much to do. And the monkey girl, in her torn yellow dress, her arm fiercely clutching a girlfriend or sister, whom she'd insisted pose with her. When I offered her the photo, she snatched it from my hands and ran, as if she was afraid I might change my mind.
You always wanted to know what I wrote those mornings I sat with you. There was more to it than I could tell you then. There was your morning greeting, "I am thinking of you today, day by day I am thinking of you," the monkey children's fingers tracing the numbers of my watch, the white bakra with the sacrificial stripe of orange paint around its throat mounting the black and white bakri, Maya's morning sweep of ashes, goat dung, and trash, dripping men in orange and green longi, out of breath halfway up from their ritual baths, ringing the temple bell in triumph of reaching the top, zigzagging women loaded with wet laundry climbing without a pause on their trip back up the ghat, girls scouring breakfast dishes in the sand frowning in the river's glare, boatmen flirting and smiling, "Boat, Madam?," hawking a ride to Manikarnika, where the funeral pyres never stop burning, and the ashes of the dead sticking to my skin like black snow. But then there was Ganga's other shore.
I would leave my weak pens to climb halfway down the ghat, scanning northwards, past the burning ghats, towards the Old City and Dasashwamed, its round umbrellas huddled under one faded pink tower, shading merchants and priests. There, the shore swelled with shadows spilling into the water to pray, to wash, to swim, to cool down, to drink, to die. There, my eyes followed the boats, fat with pilgrims, as they-hugged the nearby shore, until some glint of sun drew me to Ganga herself, still and silent. That's when the sand of that other shore reached me, its dried mud old turtles' shells, like the gray calluses padding the soles of your feet, Bhikari, crusted elephant hides, and I abandoned that endless city whose stories begin on the first day of the world, for the bare sand, shimmering sky, and dusty trees that edge the twisting spine of the Ganges, Mother Ganga, the life flow of the northern plains. Later, after you pointed out your ancestral village there, beyond the low trees, I loved it even more.
You asked once if there are dark ones like you in my country. Your question surprised me because I had forgotten that your skin was a copper pot burned in a fire, compared to the rusty splotches, like stains on the roof of a sahib's white palace, of my own. I didn't even know your name until Mishraji translated your Hindi that day I brought the tape recorder, revealing how much of your story I had missed. How your mother named you "pauper" to ward off evil, how you put your son through the MA degree on 40 rupees a day carving temple idols, how you pray every day so that your son finds a job, how you love Ganga, especially this ghat, and don't ever want to leave, how you have left and come back because Ganga is everything. Dark ones like you? I could think of no one else on earth like you.
I told you there are dark ones in my country, thinking of African Americans, but that is not what you asked. Are there dark ones like you? Do they worship at the river's edge every morning as the sun rises, and again when it sets, insisting that the gods keep their promise to provide? Do they build a small fire of sticks to cook rice for prasad and praise the gods with it, and fern leaf and jasmine bud and water from plastic bottles snatched from the trash, because they know the gods require such flattery? Do they offer a sack cloth seat to strangers and share the seat where they pray, knowing others will respect them and be jealous of a well-born friend? Do they scold the beggar children for interrupting japa, a hundred repetitions of god's name? Do they work, those dark ones, from nine to six, so that their sons may prosper and their daughters meet dowry? Do these dark ones say, "Day by day, I am feeling love for you, today I am feeling love for you," and, "Day by day you are changing," delighted that the foreigner is looking more and more like an Indian? Do they wear a dhoti every day, seated in half-lotus, barefoot, silver-haired, bare-chested, straight-spined? Do they implore, "Walk with me," leaving for the stonecutter's shop where they make a dollar and change each day, because they are proud of their art? Do they live like an ascetic, since it's the gods, worry, not theirs, what becomes of them?
Sometimes I imagine you in my country. You sit in a soft chair because you've learned not to sit on the floor, wrapped in a blanket against the harsh cold, drinking tea that tastes more like metal than daylight. You live in a house that is shut up most of the time, where all the windows have glass, or screens in the summer, to keep out the mosquitoes. You cover your legs in trousers for work and take a bus because driving is too hard, everything moves so fast. At work, you carve marble and granite into statues for churches or statues that mark the dead. You put both your son and daughter through college, since girls here are also educated, though she gets married just the same. Your wife stays home and cares for you, cooking rice on a,stove with four gas burners. Pictures of Ganga line the four walls of your rooms, a backdrop to a four-faced Shiva you carved in your past life and Ganesha his elephant-headed son, icon of prosperity.
Yet even as I picture you, you disappear. Your voice is broken and faint; I catch pieces of it, but only the overtones linger, like strange music, ending in notes of "hain" and "nahin," yes and no, with so many sounds in between. There is so much I want to tell you, so much I want to ask, but I can barely hear you, the roar of Ganga overtaking us, its monsoon tide suddenly swelling. I am drowning in a multitude of voices that I can never fully hear.
Day by day, when you go to Ganga, are you feeling love for me? Day by day I hear the dark ones like you reach out with the stubbornness of centuries, solid as light, wet as marble, warm as snow.
Day by day I am thinking of you, Bhikari. Be sure to boil your rice properly, or you'll wind up in the hospital again, like the day Girdhari flagged me down from a rickshaw and brought me to your room. When I offered you help, you said everything was all right. But your cough sounded bad.
Day by day, I am changing. I bought two silk saris before I left Banaras, as you said I should, and keep them close at hand, to show my family and friends the beautiful weave and colors. I've even worn them, twice, since my return.
Day by day, I am thinking of you, there, in the ash-marked silk of the saris, and remember black snow from Manikarnika, how it grazed the young leaves of the peepul that shaded where we sat.