Monday, March 05, 2007

Burning Bodies and Police Brutality in Filthy India

I've been in India for the last week, and despite an unpleasant first impression, I've begun to see what fascinates people with India and keeps them coming back. I was on a boat on the Ganges river at sunset, here in Varanasi. If you don't know the name of this city, you've definitely seen it on TV. It's the place where the Ganges is holy and millions of India pilgrims come each year to bathe on the steps in the polluted water and wash away their sins. The Hindus believe that if you die here, you avoid having to be reincarnated and therefore achieve eternal peace.

On the boat ride I saw a dead body in the water and funeral pyres burning on the river's edge - my boatman in his broken English called them "body burn fire". Near me was a boat containing a group of orange-robed, shaven-head buddhist monks using digital cameras and video cameras. Loud and colourful religious ceremonies took place on the river bank, people were washing in the water and - yep - even drinking the holy water. Monkeys ran up the walls of temples, while 30 or 40 women in another passing boat performed a call-and-response chant. Burning candles floated around the boats. Kids on boats with their fathers flew kites. I finally started to find something intensely remarkable and enjoyable about India. Until...

...until I got off the boat and the boatman demanded twice the amount we had agreed upon beforehand. He followed me, telling me why he deserved more, until finally I stuffed the agreed amount in his hands, raised my voice and told him "finito, fertig, finished, over. go away". I think this embarrassed him in front of the people nearby and he slinked away.

India assaults all the senses. The streets are filled with stinking, rotten garbage and with holy cow dung from the holy cows that freely wander the streets. Especially in Delhi, the smell is sometimes so bad I have to hold my breath or start gagging. There is noise, always noise in India. I suspect there is a law that says drivers are compelled to use their horns at least once every minute. This traffic noise goes all day and most of the night and when it stops the stray dogs start barking. I haven't had a good night's sleep since I've been here. The thick smog sticks to the sweat on my skin, deadening my sense of touch. The delicious spicy food is even better than I expected and it has burnt out my tastebuds. And the sights I've seen in India are definitely colourful.

Yesterday was a festival called Holi. It celebrates a time when the God Vishnu caused an evil queen to be burned alive. For some reason this is celebrated by throwing coloured powder at people and water too. Before too long all the people in the street had multi-coloured faces, then multi-coloured hair, and eventually even multi-coloured clothes. Tourists are popular targets, and people who ventured out from my hotel soon returned needing a shower and a change of clothes. I chose to watch most of it from the hotel's rooftop terrace.

From the terrace I also was witness to some police brutality. A couple of police cars came up the street, stopped suddenly and with long bamboo rods the policemen started beating a guy around the head and legs. When he hit the ground they kicked him for a bit, then threw him in the back of their car. The police then started beating another guy with their bamboo rods but he pleaded with them and they let him go. It was shocking to see this firsthand.

No case of Delhi Belly so far...