This is chapter 6 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. In this installment, a small boy has a big impact on Ashley as she, Aom and Ryan continue their stay in Varanasi.
The aarti is an ancient ritual of deity worship. Believed to destroy the spirit of darkness, the Hindu ceremony attracted more than 5,000 people who gathered to witness it. In Sanskrit, the name of the ceremony translates literally to "towards right virtue."
The aarti draws Indians and Westers with the means to make it to Varanasi, and because of that, it also brings those in need.
Our rickety rowboat pulled up to the aarti just as it was beginning. We floated for a bit, but quickly decided we needed to get a closer look.
A group of monks stood in succession, meditatively chanting and waving in sync with one another. Although the aarti is known as a fire ritual, each element was represented. Flowers stood for solid earth, water came in a liquid form, ghee-soaked candles gave off heat and fans created movement in the air.
I had just stepped onto the platform when a young boy approached me. He chanted a mantra, drew a marking on my forehead and gave me a white, sour candy. And then he asked for 100 rupees.
I thanked him for the blessing and handed him the bill. A few minutes later, he approached me again, asking for more money. He blessed Ryan and Aom, but Ryan was out of cash.
Someone nearby said that 10 rupees was appropriate for the blessing, so I refused his request. He continued to follow me, lurking nearby as I watched the monk’s rhythmic motion.
I looked over and realized the boy had disappeared. A few minutes later, a woman came to face me. The skin on her face and neck had been consumed by fire. Someone, probably a husband or father, doused her with kerosene and lit a match. The practice is called Bride burning, an archaic form of domestic violence that still exists today. She survived, but the attack damaged her body and ability to secure a “normal” job.
I looked into her eyes, held in place by melted sockets. I bought a package of bindis from her. She charged 100 rupees, but I handed her 500. She looked at the bill and put her hand out for more.
“I have children to feed,” she said.
When the ceremony ended, I walked past rows of women deflated on the filthy floor, cupping tiny babies under their breasts, with hands stretched outward. I gave the first young mother 20 rupees and handed 50 rupees to the next. I kept pulling money from my belt, trying to counteract the desperate energy with kindness. The requests continued. More, please. More. More. More.
Like many places in India, the ceremony had become a popular stop for tourists. It didn't take long for me to realize that meant it also became a place for struggling people to gather.
When I made it past the row of pleading mothers, I was reminded that the children they held might not actually belong to them. People warned us that women will rent out babies to make their solicitations more successful. I felt disgusted.
A few minutes passed and I came across an interesting looking monk, with long dreads and wise eyes. I asked him if we could take a photo.
"100 rupees," he said.
When you think of the exchange rate, the amount is negligible. But there's a feeling that begins to build. No matter how much I gave, it would never be enough. I felt that everyone looked at me like I was nothing more than an ATM. I didn't know how to feel.
I wanted to eat a quick dinner and get back to the guesthouse. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, we saw the young boy from earlier. Ryan invited him to join us.
“Ryan, I really don't want to eat with him," I said. "I need to get away."
"Come on Ash, it's just dinner," Ryan said.
"Yeah, but he kept asking me for money," I responded. "He followed me around."
“Ashley, you have to remember that he doesn't want to be out here," Ryan reminded me. "He’s not even 10 years old. I'm sure he'd rather be playing like a normal kid instead of working late nights.”
Ryan’s reaction propelled me back into reality. I came to India with the best intentions, to learn about the culture and help in any way I could. But in just two weeks, the widespread poverty and the constant pleading for cash had hardened my heart.
The boy’s name is Akash. Ryan ordered a plate of mutton biryani, and while he waited, he looked through the photos on our phones. He talked a bit of English, but he only knew work-related phrases. He learned a few words while playing cricket, but he didn’t attend school.
Akash didn’t like the Westernized version of the spicy Indian dish, so Ryan bought him a piece of the chocolate cake he had been eyeing. He walked us back to the guesthouse, leading us through the Varanasi's colorful and confusing corridors.
Before Akash said goodbye, he put his hand out, one last time, for more.
The next day, we headed to Varanasi Cafe & Bakery to grab a bite to eat and work on some projects. The food was great, but there was no wifi. The owner suggested we walk next door to the Ganpati Guest House. We weren’t disappointed.
After a few hours of work, we decided to explore the city. Geographically, it’s laid out like a maze. Varanasi had more cows than Delhi or Agra, and constantly remembering to dodge their poop was difficult. Yes, I stepped in it.
We walked through the corridors and I began to notice a common necklace.
"What are these?" I asked the clerk. "I've seen them at every shop in Varanasi."
“These are rudraksha beads, and they are very special,” he said.
“When Shiva looked down on Earth and saw the suffering from poverty and corruption, he started to cry,” he told me. “His tears grew into the rudraksha tree.”
I picked up the beads and held them in my hand. I felt their texture, appreciating the symbolism of the simple brown seed.
I bought the necklace for the girl from Agra. I bought it for Akash. I bought it so I would never forget.