He the seeker

by Gabriella Sonabend

This was Tuesday:

Varanasi is cold and I am wrapped in a scarf, wearing heavy jeans and a sweater. At night I sleep with an extra blanket, this does not feel like the city I arrived in only a fortnight ago.

I sit in Aum cafe with Kathrin at midday and we order big bowls of pasta, which are a strange treat and a welcome break from curry. I drink endless cups of tea and lassi and we watch the hippy tourists in the cafe come and go. Then he walks in, he is old but I can’t say how old. He has piercing blue eyes and long matted white hair clumped in dreadlocks of different lengths and thickness. He wears a hand stitched black/green hat with a small frog figurine pinned to it – now dangling over his forehead. He is dressed like a baba – a sadhu, a wanderer. I have seen this man before in the old hotel on Assi Ghat on the first night I spent in Varanasi. The American woman had been giving a talk and I saw him but was too anxious to speak to him, I was not sure what I would say. Now as he emerged at the top of the stairs in the cafe I looked at Kathrin and asked if it was ok to invite him to sit. He surveyed the small rooftop for a spare seat and I signaled him to come over to the bench I was sitting on.

He walked over and we introduced ourselves. I told him that I had seen him before and he remembered me. He remembered that I had been the first person to ask a question at the talk and that my question made him think that I was Jewish – a curious deduction. We both remembered that there had been an empty seat between us during the talk and I asked him how long he had been living in Varanasi.

He told me that he had come to India 40 years ago in search of something. He had lived in many many different places and had eventually landed in Varanasi where he had run out of physical energy but his mind was still very much alive, still watching and learning and looking. He had come here from Canada and he said that he had had nothing to look back on; no wife, no dog, no job, no family, no commitments and he considered himself to be lucky to have none of these burdens and to be free to exist as what he called – a seeker.

He had been seeking for years and he had seen wonderful things and been exposed to surprising truths and beauties but these positive sights and signs were buried beneath layers of superficiality, false paths and mixed messages – still the big man upstairs had intended it to be this way and he was simply following his path. When he had landed here in Benares he knew this would be his final site and he was pleased that he had chosen a city of such great knowledge. An ancient hidden knowledge, multi-faceted and multi-lingual – but attaining this knowledge is not simple, he knows this well and in truth I feel I can relate. Again I am reminded of Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat and the smiling signs that lead nowhere.

The seeker speaks on with little need for prompting or probing and warns against the lure of the city, the aspects which are false and beguiling, the phony shamans and healers, the fake knowledge. As he speaks his eyes dart around and he seems filled with a nervous energy even though on the surface his limbs have assumed a relaxed position as he leans back against the cushioned bench.

He has no second name. In many ways he seems to me like a child. He repeats many times how happy he is to be able to keep journeying, following fate with no ties to anything but as he repeats these words I feel a great sorrow in him. There is desperation in the nervous blue eyes, and although he has been travelling alone for many many years and he is physically old, he looks as though he has only recently left wherever he has come from – and is just abandoned – I do not pry into his story. He finishes his tea and says goodbye. We know we will meet again; this is a very small city and already many faces are familiar.

Kathrin and I walk along the ghats in the rain. There is hardly anyone around, the boat men still try to offer us a boat ride but even they do not have the energy to try to convince us. Along the water front we see idols bobbing up and down in the water from earlier festivities, garland of flowers slowly sink from the surface and the boats knock against each other. The ghats are almost fully submerged and only a few people swim in the water, I do not see anyone washing clothes. We walk back towards the centre and wind our way around markets, eventually after not very long our adventurous mood has evaporated and we take a cycle rickshaw back to Assi back to another cafe where I am consoled by a large hot chocolate and an enormous warm chocolate brownie.

Kathrin and I discover that we have the same birthday.