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This morning, the sky still opaque with the persistent Varanasi fog, and a damp chill in the air, I set out to release a photo of my dear friend Serena into the Ganges River. I’ve been living on the ghats of Benares (the ancient name of this city) for over one month, each day thinking about and wondering when I would find the perfect moment. The moment came today because I leave here in a few days.

I would have done it yesterday with my friend Seema, who has helped me with translation in interviews, and my friend Nandini, an eleven-year old who is one of the many children who sell candles, except when I reached inside my camera bag for the photo it was not there.

My intention was to buy a candle – which is a small bowl made of dried banana leaves, festooned with flowers, and a candle nestled in the middle – from her and some of the other children, and have a small ceremony with their chatter and playfulness as the music and representation of life celebrated.


The candle-selling children, who range in age from about seven to early teens, tout candles to support their families. Some come from multi-generational silk weavers who’ve lost their businesses to China who undercut Benares’s price of silk by nearly half by using machines versus the traditional hand looming used here.

When I ask the children about school they all assure me that they go but I see them on the ghats at all hours on my near daily strolls. I met a social worker on one of my strolls who confirmed my suspicion; they do not go to school but work all day. The positive side is that some of their time is spent in playing together, talking with and learning to speak English with tourists, (with some of us treating them to chai, biscuits and camaraderie) and perfecting their art of persuasion. Putting a candle into the Ganga ensures ‘good karma’ they tell potential customers.

Instead of a lively celebration for my friend it was a quiet one with only me and a handful of flat-headed black-winged gray birds with bright orange beaks and orange-ringed eyes in attendance. I walked to a secluded spot by the river’s edge where remnants of a straw statue of the Goddess Saraswati lay composting into the river.

There was a four-day celebration in honor of Saraswati last week, a bit of a story in itself. It was a curious affair where, in part, young, inebriated pelvic-thrusting men followed a truck with glaring lights and blaring music through the night streets with a plastic replica of the goddess positioned to watch their devotional carousal. The distortion of their perverted worship lay in ruins on the bank of the Ganga.

Goddess Saraswati embodies the attributes of learning, music and art. Serena had a fond appreciation for her. It seemed the ideal spot to set my banana-leafed marigold candle afloat.

Because Serena had refused to give into death, the only discussion of it between us came in an e-mail that she sent to me when I was in India in 2008. She told me that her doctor said her cancer was not the worst of her problems, it was the staph infection she had developed in her lower abdomen. Her grim words came as a shock; she was told to put her affairs in order. I had seen Serena four months earlier, and while it was evident that she was struggling, she didn’t appear to be close to the threshold of death.

I was able to speak with her twice upon my return home before she slipped into first a confused place and then a comatose one. I felt weak in her presence, not knowing how to converse with her. I was ill at ease to discuss death, assuming that she would not have appreciated my candor given that she continued to believe she was going to heal. So there was no mention of her afterlife wishes, and with the countless hours of time we had previously spent together, I couldn’t recall it ever being a topic of discussion. But a few days before Serena’s passing her father told me that he had talked with her about it. He said he had to use a hypothetical situation – a car accident – since she refused to talk about the possibility of her death. She told him she wanted some of her remains to go to India. At the time he could not recall, but thought she had said she wanted her friend Barbara to take them. A few days after she died, her father e-mailed me saying, “We know Serena loved and still loves you or she would not have chosen you to take her ashes (if you will) to India the next time you go.”

I am not sure what transpired between that e-mail and the one I received from him a few months before leaving for this trip to India in which I asked about taking some of her remains with me. I was told it was not a possibility, that it was now unclear what Serena’s wishes were based on a notebook they found amongst her things that included last wishes that were apparently not in her handwriting.

Serena spent a year traveling in India, but told me that Varanasi was one place she never visited and always wanted to. It was likely where she would have wanted to have some of her remains, since those that choose the Ganga River in Varanasi as their final resting place do so in the belief that they will avoid rebirth. Her belief in eastern philosophies overrode those of her strict Catholic upbringing.

Since I was not able to release her remains into the river, an image seemed like a good substitute. All of my pictures were in storage in anticipation of moving and traveling; the only representation was in the form of a photo magnet. I made a photocopy of it, wanting a picture that would easily disintegrate in a sea of a million bodies.

I considered setting fire to the photo but decided instead to stand it up alongside the edge between the marigolds and the bowl and only light the candle. The river’s current was slight but enough for the bowl to quickly whirl away from the shore. It went a short distance and then turned back towards where the remains of Saraswati lay, as if to touch the feet of the Goddess. With that it changed course and floated down the river. I watched it for some time as it bobbed up and down in the green waters. After several minutes the paper photo fell onto the candle and burst into flames. I felt the sensation of liberation for a dear friend who had always wanted to come to Varanasi.

One-year anniversary tribute to Serena – Death from Cancer of a Misogynist Mindset

Clever Cow

from outside a cafe i frequent in varanasi – –

I adore dogs. Actually I am fond of all animals. But dogs share a special place in my heart. Their social nature, their devotion, their companionship – D-O-G / G-O-D

This dog wanted someone to play with. In his excitement he started rubbing his head in my hair.

One of the most difficult things about being in India is seeing the condition of the dogs, most of whom are feral, street dogs that spend their days scavenging for food and their nights roving in packs. I often hear them fighting amongst themselves in intimidating territorial barks. During the day many of them can be found standing at perfect attention in front of shops or eateries, hoping a benevolent soul will share something with them.

Last night I sat on the ghats feeding a scrawny white dog some chapati. The dog was initially reluctant and leery of me; they are often abused so are naturally reserved. But once she realized I was a friend she ate the bread with a fervor, and was soon joined but what look liked her sibling who wanted to be fed too. Afterwards she sat next to me in appreciation and let me pet her tiny head. Before taking leave she held up her paw and held my hand with perfect grace and camaraderie. A beautiful display of affection. The young guy sitting next to me said the dog could feel the love.

The dog situation is particularly painful in Varanasi where I’ve been told sterilization is not legal because this is a holy city. Therefore, there are puppies everywhere. Everywhere.

This pack of puppies does not look to be doing well. It has been very cold here so they lay near or in the warm embers of a fire pit.

This is one of the puppies from the above pictured pack. I found it strange to see a full crockery of milk sitting untouched next to them. They almost appear to lethargic to imbibe in it. Very sad.

This doting mom of new puppies has her home on a pile of fly-infested garbage. It broke my heart to see them in this state.

I found this large pack of two families sleeping inside the entrance of a temple.

I encounter a number of very pitiful looking dogs; this being one of them. I’ve noticed that the sickest looking dogs hang out around the sweet shops.

I’m in Varanasi, one my favorite places in India. I’m staying in Assi Ghat where I lived when I was here in 2006. It’s the southern most ghat on the Ganges.

Each section, referred to as a ghat, has steps that lead down to the river.

One of my primary reasons for returning to Varanasi, also known by it’s ancient name Benares, is to photograph each ghat from the shores of the river, up the steps, and through the winding alleyways that lead into the bustle of the city.

A project that could take some time with the multiple ghats, I didn’t get to it during the six weeks I was here last time because the sadhus (holy men) came to town after the Kumbh Mela gathering. Instead I spent time getting to know and photographing them.

Another great way to see the ghats is from a boat. When I switched hotel rooms the morning after my arrival, my luggage was fetched and moved by way of boat. The morning glide offered a perspective of life on the ghats from the eye of the Ganga.

Flying kites is a favorite past-time with the children playing on the ghats. These boys were offering a slightly different variation then I’ve seen before with their knickers hanging low.

The pollution levels in the holy river have reached staggering proportions; it has been declared unfit for human bathing. It is however, a practice that continues unabated; both natives and pilgrims alike partake of its sacred waters. Bathing and laundry soaps have been banned, but that does not stop them from being used. The Ganga washes bodies and clothes, as well as sins, dishes and water buffalo.

One of the most important applications of ‘Ma Ganga’ is the release of the deceased. It is believed that moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth) is attained if the Ganges is one’s final resting place. Unfortunately, bodies are only partially burned when put into the river, adding to the pollution problem.

There is also industrial waste, urban waste water, and raw sewage contributing to the contaminated waters. The Ganga, the most populous river basin in the world, has become the breeding ground for 1.5 billion litres of sewage a day, from the 692 villages, towns, and cities that deposit into it. Dr. Sudhirender Sharma, in his paper The Ganga, says ‘The river – an ancient symbol of purity and cleansing has become a great open sewer along much of it’s length.’

Yet, with all the pollution and impurity the Ganga has swirling in her waters, to be near the river creates a tranquility, a sense of timelessness. But Sharma and others campaigning to save the Ganga, wonder for how much longer.

Stories are everywhere in India. Sorrowful stories on the end of outstretched hands that follow me as I walk past them in the street, grabbing onto me in desperation. Each of them I want to record and tell the world. I imagine what I’d say, as I, like everyone else, simply walks by.

A few nights ago two young boys – maybe 5-7 years of age – followed me to my hotel. They may have seen my ten rupee peanut purchase from a street vendor. When they asked for money, I opened the bag – fashioned from yesterday’s newspaper – and poured what amount would fit into their small, dirty hands. A few flights up to my room I asked myself why I didn’t just give them the entire bag. It won’t solve the problem, but it may alleviate a small bit of their hunger for awhile.

They seemed grateful for the amount they received unlike the woman with the child perched on her hip who asked if I’d buy her baby a banana. She angrily rejected it when I handed it to her, saying she wanted more. One of the tricks of beggary is to sell the items back to the vendor, at half-price. One banana would not yield enough, so she refused it. I thought back to the banana incident in Eugene, when a man outside the store where I shop asked me for a dollar. I told him I didn’t have a dollar but could give him a banana. He snidely said that he had asked for money, not a banana, telling me that one day I too may be in his position, to which I responded, “and I’ll be grateful for a banana’.

On occasion I will give money, but I prefer to give an offering of food. It fairly quickly separates those who are hungry from those who have a different appetite to feed. In India, the ‘beggar mafia‘ puts people into the streets to do their bidding for them. In an attempt to garner more sympathy babies are put into young woman’s arms, or worse, arms or other body parts are amputated. Not wanting to support that, I try not to give in the form of money. To do so keeps this deplorable system thriving.

Yesterday I saw a woman with a horribly disfigured face. I think my shock may have registered in my expression, but all I could do was walk past her, though the image of her wouldn’t leave me. Was she the victim of bride burning or did the beggar mafia do this to her? Was it an accident? The humane part of me wanted to sit next to her on the stoop and listen to her story. The skeptic in me doubted we could speak each other’s language, and by the shape of her damaged mouth, I doubt she could easily talk. Or that she’d want to tell a stranger her story.

I sometimes save scraps to feed the street dogs though the ones I’ve approached of late have not seemed very interested. When sprinkling pieces of chapati (Indian flat bread) onto the street for them they move their head towards my hands, more interested in being pet than fed. The other night one of them followed me to the entrance of my hotel, reminding me of the dog I befriended when I stayed in this area (The Tibetan Colony) a few years ago. The small, demure orangish-colored mutt would catch the rage of the hotel manager when he’d follow me up the steps to where I was staying. I’d hang out with and feed him a few times a day, mostly buttery Tibetan bread, though on the night I left I bought him 30 rupees worth of meat. I’ve kept my eye out for that dog since I’ve been here, but I’m sure he’s long gone. The lifespan of homeless dogs isn’t a long one, though the dogs in the colony are less feral and generally more approachable than many dogs in India.

The story I’ve been working on this past week is of a mom who had to fight to save her twin daughters from being one of India’s 50 million missing. I met with Dr. Mitu Khurana and her daughters, who are now four years of age, last Saturday. I’ve been busily transcribing the taped interview and adding subtitles to the video footage. I’ve nearly finished the video, after a lot of newbie trial and error, and will be working on finishing the interview to put it into story format. I am also putting a blog together with a chronicle of the articles that have been written on her, and a place where people can access information and updates on her case.

I think I’ll take a break from it today though since it’s my birthday. I’ll not have the candles to make a wish with, but it’s always the same wish – for peace on earth. Some of the wisest words spoken come from a quote by Mother Teresa who said ‘If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other’. The question begs, when and why did we forget this, and what will help us to remember?

Irom Sharmila, from the state of Manipur, in northeast India, has not forgotten. She is on the tenth year of a fast to protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows the army to use force, arrest or shoot anyone on the mere suspicion that someone has committed or is about to commit a crime. The act, which was imposed in 1980, has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. As a personal protest Irom stopped taking food and water. Considered to be suicidal, she is imprisoned in a hospital in Delhi where she is forced fed through a tube. Her protest has not changed the situation in Manipur, but that has not deterred her from continuing. Rather Irom says, ‘we all come here with a task to do. It is my bounden duty’.

Family Portrait

Styrofoam Beat

Drums made of styrofoam and sticks, these boys were playing a mad beat on the streets of Delhi.

Being back in India is both surreal and familiar. My friend Sonam said that when he saw me at the airport I was walking as if India was my second home. Familiarity does not however remove the feeling of being a stranger in a foreign land, especially in a metropolis like Delhi, with its frenzied pace and relentless motion, and the impersonal feeling this gives. Nor does it hide my differentness as evidenced by the penetrating stares.

With each trip, I continue to learn how to use the Metro – Delhi’s subway system – with it’s vast number of rail lines, platforms and stations. And passengers. Yesterday I waited for the metro to arrive in the crowded platform. The uniformed man blowing directives through a whistle tried to get everyone to form single lines, to no avail. Few paid attention and those who were close to the front did not want to lose their place. It seemed everyone had to be somewhere in a hurry because when the metro arrived there was a mad rush to get onboard and secure one’s place before the doors closed shut.

Less than five minutes later another train arrived. In one giant pushing motion, squeezed tightly together as one entity, we piled onto the subway, everyone jostling to find a place to stand and hang on. My arm was curled around the waist of a young man to reach the pole in the center of the aisle, where I found a space, among the other hands, to hang on. A few minutes into the ride, a gloved hand started caressing mine. I moved it down the pole, the hand followed and continued its caress. When I looked over in the direction it seemed to be coming from I caught the eyes of a man in a leather jacket and gloves. I again moved my hand, and close enough to someone else’s so that if he continued, he would have to be caressing both hands. The man to his right probably wouldn’t have appreciated it, so he stopped.

India is crowded, chaotic and alive! The streets are a virtual panoply of activity – whirring sewing machines, haircutting and shaving, children playing, men sleeping, women laundering, dogs scavenging, beggars begging, food cooking,vendors hawking, brooms sweeping, metallurgists pounding, fires burning. It never sleeps. All night long from my fourth story hotel room I hear the roar of traffic, the blare of horns. Fortunately it stops once the dreams start, but sometimes when I wake I feel the dust of the streets in my eyes. And I wonder if I slept at all.

Enroute to India, and about to be in Delhi, I am posting a story that is particularly troubling.

India has less than a year before the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

It is the biggest international sports event the country has hosted in two decades.

But as pressure mounts to complete venues on time, there is growing criticism over the treatment of workers.

Many are saying they lack even basic facilities.

They are crammed in plastic tents and entire families are forced to live there without sanitary facilities.

Perna Suri reports from the Indian capital.

Indian workers allege exploitation