In search of inspiration, poet Greg Delanty found a sense of the familiar in the colourful, chaotic city of Varanasi
Several years ago, my writing routine was stalled, arthritic. When I sensed a poem forming in my head, I’d hold off writing it — often for a few days — as I had to write it at my desk, surrounded by my books. I was teaching at a college in Vermont, with four collections under my belt, but I felt my poems needed to change. I wanted to write in a more immediate, open fashion, on the spot in buses, trains, restaurants, the street. I tried to break my habit, but it wasn’t working.
The best thing for a person with arthritis is to move. I reckoned I needed to head to somewhere alien to me. That might force me out of my writing ritual. I took a term off teaching and chose India as it seemed so strange.
On the way to India from the States, I stopped off in my native Cork to break the journey. My aunt Kitty died while I was back home. I shouldered her coffin with relatives out of the Gurranabraher church.
Afterwards I walked down to the River Lee through the lanes off Blarney Street and Shandon. I loved those lanes so characteristic of the city I grew up in, many opened like portals on to the River Lee. I wasn’t to know that the next time I’d recall those lanes was when I was walking down the laneways of Varanasi to “the eternal river”, the Ganges.
What a shock I got as soon as disembarked the plane in Delhi. I was lost, miserable without my routine those early days, but determined to see the trip through. I went about in a stupor.
Culture shock would be too watery a description. The crowded, traffic-mad streets — many people wearing masks because of air pollution — were too much. I had to get out. On a whim, I decided to take a train to somewhere called Varanasi.
I paused to see the Taj Mahal en route. This edifice more than lived up to its reputation, but I felt I’d only “done” the Taj the way busloads of tourists “do” the Ring of Kerry. I continued my train trip.
I trundled out of Varanasi Station, agog and aghast at the commotion: the chai sellers, the colourful Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, the poor, deformed, wretched, the cargo, the hubbub. I still wasn’t used to the rickshaw drivers waiting to pounce outside every station. I got so flustered by their onslaught I walked away.
I spotted a lone rickshaw man. Since he didn’t hustle me and drove a bike rather than a motor rickshaw, I approached him. My destination was the “ghats”: the steps that lead down to the Ganges where bodies are cremated. We bargained — as recommended by the writers in the Lonely Planet — before he pointed me to the seat at the back. I can’t recall how far it actually was from the station to the ghats, but it felt like eternity. I saw how old and frail my chauffeur was. We hit a minor incline and I began to feel bad for him. I asked if he was OK, offered to exchange places. He refused point blank, vexed. What I had suggested was unthinkable.
But then another minor incline. You couldn’t even call it a hill. It was too much for me when he stood up off the saddle and agonisingly strained to turn the pedals. I called a halt.
We haggled again. I was so desperate at this stage that I pulled out all the rupees I had, much more than the agreed fare, and told him that if he sat back, I’d give him the lot. Sense prevailed. He reluctantly settled behind me with one thin elbow resting on my rucksack.
Off we went, me cycling. I didn’t realise the spectacle we made. As we entered Varanasi centre, people rushing to work stopped on seeing a youngish (I was still in my 30s) white man with curly hair chauffeuring a poor Hindu man. Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey never caused such excitement.
Arriving near the ghats, I helped my passenger out of his seat — he looked quite comfortable in his new throne by now and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had waved to the crowds.
I hightailed it before anyone hailed me, ordering me to transport them to their destination. I thought maybe I might apply for a new position: the patron saint of rickshaw drivers. In the meantime, I needed to find somewhere to stay.
Suddenly, I felt oddly at home in one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. Perhaps I felt at home because the city was built on hills, full of lanes leading down to the sacred river, recalling the lanes off Blarney Street and Shandon Street that I had walked after shouldering my aunt’s coffin.
I found a room in the Shandi Guesthouse over the Manikarnika Ghat. I could see the bodies burning from my outdoor balcony.
It struck me there that the undulating Hindi reminded me of the-- sing-song Cork accent, and how we used words in Cork that had Hindi origin and were brought back by Irish soldiers in the British army, words like dekho, which in Hindi means “to look”, or conjun box. Conjun comes from the word Khajana — Hindi for “treasure” — and in Cork it was our word for a child’s piggy bank. I had just broken into my conjun box to bribe the rickshaw driver.
On one occasion, I lost my way in the maze of alleys. I stepped aside to let men wearing nothing but dhotis, three on either side, shoulder a body swathed in white cloth on a bamboo stretcher to the Ganges. Since the Manikarnika Ghat was the main burning ghat, I reckoned I’d find my way to my guesthouse by following the bier.
It was here the dam broke and I wrote the poem, ‘Elegy for an Aunt’, invoking the last time I walked those lanes in Cork:
“...I stepped aside from pallbearers shouldering
a tinsel-covered body about the size of
whose bier I bore only weeks ago on the hills
down to the ghats
of chemical factories lining the Lee, our
My old writing routine was broken, poems came unbidden: on the Mumbai train, Goa beaches, Varkala cliffs, right up even to my latest book No More Time, a book about climate change that shows us how humans and the natural world are connected.
Thank you, Varanasi — “the eternal City” — for uncorking this Cork man.
The air is different. You notice it immediately. It's rarefied, finer, invigorating; it has a sense of the divine about it. Breathe and your chakras give a blissful little shudder. It's Nepal: home of the legendary Gurkhas, Everest and Annapurna, and birthplace of Buddha.