Today was the day I was waiting for – on a spiritual level. The Gods have taken us by the hand and lay precious gifts in our path. My heart has burst into the Ganges. Into the arms of Mother Ganga, with the guidance and force of Shiva.
How do I put the events of this one day into words? How do I bring the spirit to the blank page? I will try here. The morning began with a walk along the Ganges. A stray mother dog with puppies, nursing along the bank. Two young girls trying to sell postcards. We recognize one of them from the first day. A sassy and sweet teenager. Street smart, but with a big smile – and paan stained teeth. Paan is the Indian version of chewing tobacco. Once we recognize her, we start talking. She is 15. I like her, and agree to look at her postcards and stickers of Hindu Gods. We buy a bunch, and then she asks me to buy a box of decorative tattoo powders and stamps. She begins stamping little flowers in silver powder on my hand. I do not mind at all. There is a gentle girlishness to her – underneath the premature toughness. I eventually buy the box from her, as a gesture of warmth. She understands. In the meantime, they ask if Ron is my father. When I tell them he is my “husband”, they are in disbelief. They ask how old he is and he asks them to guess… they start at 70! It was all actually very funny, with Ron making very funny statements and jokes, and all of us laughing very loud – while women lay out their Saris, pink and blue, in the morning sun – to dry from the morning ritual bath. People watched us with looks of curiosity as the young girl leaned comfortably and casually against my knee and her friend continued bantering with Ron.
After some time, we returned to the hotel for breakfast. Mr. Tiwari, the owner of the hotel was standing outside. I immediately expressed how wonderful the musical evening was last night. And I mentioned that I was interested in the small tampura in his shop. He tells Papuu to open the shop. We go in and sit; eventually Mr. Tiwari comes in and Papuu leaves. He starts saying how it has been a special experience having us here, and that I sang in his store last night. He asks which tampura I played last night, when we showed him and I asked how much it is – he smiles.
He tells me that he wants to give the tampura to me as a gift. Because this way, I will always remember him and Benaras (Varanasi) when I play it. I will carry him and his city back home. At first I was stunned and didn’t quite understand the reality of his gift. I responded that I wanted to give him something in exchange. He again expressed how he would like me to carry him and this sacred place in my heart – this is what I could give in return, as well as a big hug. My head started spinning – I felt a wave of energy and love flowing over me. I looked over at Ron, and saw that he had tears in his eyes. He understood the immensity of this gift. The conversation then developed into a deep sharing of ideas of family, love and spirit.
Mr. Tiwari is an incredible man. He said that he considers himself the luckiest man in the world – he has a wonderful wife, two sons, successful businesses, a connection with his divinity. He does not need anything else, and he does not need more money. The gesture of giving me the tampura was one of claiming Ron and I as family. He is our brother in Varanasi and we are his sister/brother in NYC. After sitting together and talking for over an hour, he encouraged us to go eat breakfast. But he also told us that we were invited to his house at night to sing for his family, and an extra surprise – he made arrangements that a very close friend of his and a well known Indian Classical singer, Devashish Dey, was going to join us later to hear my singing!
We went to the restaurant and ordered breakfast. On the upper roof, his sons were flying kites in preparation of the kite festival tomorrow. The blue sky was dotted with diamond shaped, brightly colored paper kites. His older son, Aditya is very adept. He called out to us to come upstairs and fly kites. After eating, we joined him and he passed me the kite string. The last time I flew a kite was when I was a very small child on the beach in Shelter Island, with my parents and grandmother. The beauty of those moments came alive as I flew this paper kite over the Ganges. Ron also told me that he was quite a kite flyer years ago – which I didn’t know.
I was able to fly it for a few minutes, but then the wind dropped…and so did the kite. It plummeted. Luckily, Aditya’s younger brother and Papuu saved it from being demolished or drowned. After that, Papuu asked if we were ready to go to the ashram, and we were. The shawls were downstairs by the reception desk. I asked for Papuu to take us to a sweet shop so I could also give some sweets to the widows.
I remembered from the movie “Water”, the widows were dreaming about the taste of sweets – especially ladoos. Papuu led us to the most famous sweet shop in Varanasi. He suggested bringing the widows a box of ladoos. I did not tell him that this was what was depicted in the movie. We bought 40 ladoos – which made about 2 pieces for each widow (19 widows at the ashram).
At the ashram, we first greeted the head monk, who received our 101 rupees and wrote a donation receipt. He asked if we wanted the widows to come to the courtyard to receive the donation – or did I want to go to them. Immediately I responded that I wanted to take the gifts to them. The young monk then led us there, and the head monk came with us as well. Inside the Ashram, Ron and Papuu took the shawls out of their plastic bags and handed each one to me. I took each one, walked up to a widow, and gently wrapped the shawl around her. Then I took 2 ladoos and placed them in her wrinkled hands. Then I made the sign of Namaste. When I wrapped the shawls around them, I felt I was hugging and receiving hugs from each one. I spent enough time to wrap the shawl lovingly and gently squeeze their shoulders as a gesture of warmth. As I repeated this over and over, my heart filled up with tenderness, compassion and humility. I was careful not to approach forcefully. I was ready to be very present with each person – and to experience their humanity. Not to shield myself from their suffering – instead to share joy and connection. They responded with the same joy and warmth. They made gestures of blessing over our heads and many chanted blessings for us. I did not feel any sadness. Instead, there was an incredible feeling of being able to release the love and energy that I was carrying.
Once we got to the top floor of the ashram, I had a chance to look around at Ron, Papuu and the head monk. We were all deeply moved by the experience, and each in a deeply emotional and self-reflective state. We looked out of the steel-grated windows. The monk pointed to his temple with the gold roof. Not the golden temple, but the Nepalese temple. It was beautiful. But even more beautiful was the Ganges unfolding and sparkling below, carrying the lives and prayers of millions of people towards the land of liberation.
On the way back to the hotel, Papuu took us to a house where they have been making natural perfumes and cooking spice mixes for generations. They had a courtyard with 2 beautiful clean cows and a baby cow. Ron and I pet a cream colored cow as she sniffed us for food…to make another long story short, I bought perfume oil – a rare flower oil called Noorh. As well as chai masala and cooking spice mixes.
When we returned to the hotel, I was full of emotion, but exhausted. I took out my tampura and tuned it. It fits perfectly in my arms. Ron went for a walk to think and smoke his daily cigar. Eventually I fell asleep for an hour, which was very good. I needed to rest before the evening’s musical activities.
Around 5 PM, the door bell rang – actually it buzzed like a very large mosquito. Papuu brought me the sari I purchased yesterday. The store had sent it to the hotel, with the blouse and petticoat. He asked me to open the package and to make sure it was ok. As I scanned the red silk with gold-colored embroidery, I saw a large spot with a small hole in the center of it. I didn’t know what to do. I was tired and getting nervous about singing and meeting the famous singer. But off we all went, back to the sari shop. It was night. Paan stalls were brightly lit while goats ate garbage on the top of a demolished building. Dogs growled agitatedly at the people rushing through the winding lanes. Motorbikes honked loudly, Papuu gently took my hand as I started losing my sense of footing in the dark lanes – he was walking quite fast and I was disoriented. Ron stood guard against the crowd behind me and protected me from being groped – or hit by a motorbike.
At the sari shop, they exchanged the damaged sari with one that is the same shade of red – but with even more elaborate stitching. Apparently it is worth about $100 more than the one I purchased. The store owner was not happy about this – but Papuu made it very clear that he did not have a choice but to accept the exchange. This ended up being a very lucky thing. I now have a very unique, lush and gorgeous silk sari from Varanasi.
On the way back to the hotel, Papuu took us to a bookstore, where we bought 2 interesting books on Varanasi.
We ate a quick dinner at the restaurant, then met Mr. Tiwari and went to his house. His family and in laws were waiting for us. I was asked to immediately sing because the famous singer (I have to get the spelling of his name and I will edit the blog) was arriving shortly….
I am now growing very tired. It is 1:30 AM... to make a long story short – the musical evening was just as beautiful and meaningful as the day. Devashish Dey came to our hotel room with Mr. Tiwari. He was a very kind and gentle man. I sang the Ganapati Bandana and Rag Bageshree (Alap and Chotta Khayal), and a Ghazal. He was very impressed and told me that I have an incredible voice, and that my family and my guru have taught me very well. I am a very fine singer. Then he began singing….and heaven came rushing into the room. What a voice. What technique and sound. I have not yet heard a live voice that sings so beautifully in Indian Classical music. And there he was, singing Rag Bageshree as well an evocative bhajan in our room as we listened awe struck from the bed – the scent of chai masala in the air and tears in our eyes from the impact of his music.
Ron responded very strongly, and I now think he has changed his mind about male Indian Classical singers. He used to think that female singers were much more expressive and interesting to listen to. But from Ron’s expressive eyes, I could tell that he was amazed and moved by this man.
We exchanged contact info. He has many American and European students who come to Varanasi to study with him – for months, or a year. I would love to have the chance one day to spend an extended period studying music in Varanasi.
It is now time to sleep for a few hours. It is 2 AM
I am dizzy with the love and caring I am receiving from this journey – from Ron, the Mahajan family, Mr. Tiwari and Papuu. It is life altering.