The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Varanasi

In Milan Kundera’s formulation of Nietzsche’s myth of eternal return, only that which recurs has substance; that which happens only once is like a shadow, without weight: unbearably light.

[A]nd whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.

It has been so very horrible in Varanasi, where I lay in my bed – or at best the hotel rooftop – for six days and longed for home or any place apart from this city. When I decided to write about the places in which I read while travelling, I wasn’t reckoning upon being so sick in Varanasi.

But that is not what I care about really – never fear (over-descriptive details). More so, I have been struck by the act of reading in unpleasant circumstances and my subsequent inability to comprehend the novel as a whole. It was only yesterday, but beyond plot, I cannot tell you what the book is about. That is, I seldom stopped in my weariness, to ask myself “What is he trying to say? What does this sentence mean, really? Is this true?” The usual interactions.

Instead, I went about isolating pieces from the story and making them the meaning, manipulating them in support of a perspective I was doggedly determined to adhere to (Varanasi is a terrible place, I’m tired of travelling and I want to go home).

Kundera would forgive me, I think. After all, Tomas continually questions the authenticity of his love for Tereza and wonders if their life together was the tenuous result of a series of six (individually meaningless) coincidences. Some people say there is no meaning but I tend to think there is an overabundance of the stuff. I can pluck any – any! – scene or sentence out of a book, out of the filthy streets, out of the holy foul river, and make it mean. Which is to say, I make it mine. I make it the thing, out of all the potential things, that is important to me.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, these were the words that were most important to me:

Why was the word idyll so important for Tereza? Raised as we are on the mythology of the Old Testament, we might say that an idyll is an image that has remained with us like a memory of Paradise: life in Paradise was not like following a straight line to the unknown; it was not an adventure. It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness, not boredom…

The passage bred in me like a parasite, multiplying in its meaningfulness with each pathetic passing day. I dreamed about my bookshelf, my spice-drawer, my wooden boxes; my friends. I spent many hours making imaginary cups of tea in my own, much-loved, kitchen; clean water running from the tap. I didn’t want to travel. I didn’t want an adventure into the unknown. I longed to move in a circle among known people and places and objects.

“If I have to be in a bed,” I said, “I would like it to be the four-poster canopy bed in the loft in Portland; there are mosquitoes in this bed in Varanasi and I can hear our neighbours fighting and peeing in French and ferocious monkeys are pounding on the tin roof outside our window that I dare not open though I’m desperate for air.”

I quoted the passage a hundred times a day.

“The boy is chopping onions on the stairwell,” I’d say and quote it again: “on the actual steps.” “That goat is eating a nappy he found on the street. Baby shit is still shit, I’m going to be sick.” “I felt a little better so I went for a walk but I was not ready, I wasn’t ready Ian – this old child of a woman, covered in enormous boils and open wounds, she was writhing on the ground and grabbing at my feet, pleading. What was I to do?”

Questions left hanging in the rotten, hazy air, I went searching for more proof in the only book I had to hand. It’s amazing what you can find when you’re looking for confirmation of a world-view.

“Did you see that guy just kick that dog?”

“Listen to that dog crying. The man hit it with a cricket bat.”

“Those puppies trembling in the ashes. Look.”

Look! Proof:

There’s no particular merit in being nice to one’s fellow man. She had to treat the other villagers decently, because otherwise she couldn’t live there… We can never establish with certainty what part of our relationship with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect, mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

It seemed to me, so true. Me, who never owned anything more than a goldfish for fear of being responsible for something, having to deal with it when I wanted to go travelling again… Would I have given these words a second look were I well and unperturbed in a different location?

This is the question I found myself pondering this morning over a small breakfast of tea, toast and a banana. My appetite is returning and I feel like I could brave the alleys and the havoc later this afternoon. I wonder what I’ll see in the streets now that they don’t seem quite so nauseating to me. I wonder if I’d started the novel tomorrow instead of last week…? I wonder what it would mean to me then…?

Having vowed to never come back to Varanasi (at the risk of lightness and an insubstantial, meaningless, experience), I’m thinking now I will have to return. It’s time to get heavy. Down to the river I go.




4 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Varanasi

  1. I hope you are on the mend. It’s funny, we are sitting here in a guest house in Kep, Cambodia, where there are these beauutiful dogs, and I was just talking to my friend about the dogs in India, and how different they are. In Varanasi, we saw a dog with a huge, gaping, open wound, and it stuck in my mind. Varanasi in general was like that for me, a series of unusual, uncomfortable, sometimes shocking sensual assaults. When you recover, so too will your perspective, but I feel for you being unwell in such a place, and feel your discomfort. Take care x

    • Thanks Sarah,

      I’m feeling well again and, you’re right, I have a new perspective… or a kinder perspective might be a better way to say it – I still feel overwhelmed sometimes but I’ve been enjoying the chaos and the sadhus and spent a fascinating morning at the burning ghats (something I definitely wouldn’t have stomached last week).

      Thanks for your wishes, I look forward to those Cambodian dogs!

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