some new words from May 2016
"Hello ma'am. Where are you from?"
Her kindness makes me pause. I have kept a quick pace on this street where everyone wants to sell something, breezing past dozens of other questions with a smile, a shake of my head no, and quick, "no thank you."
Even a short walk is filled with a chorus of:
"Pants? Best price."
"Come in. Just looking!"
These constant questions that used to annoy me have become humorous in their relentlessness. This place has a way of wearing down your reactions.
Her approach is different. I don't know why I stop, but I do.
We are in a busy alleyway. Like all the alleyways in Varanasi. They are improbably crowded with small shops, fried food, cows, sleeping dogs, humans, and even motorbikes that make their way through in bursts of acceleration followed by sudden stops.
She is standing with her heels flush to a short wall that opens up to her small, one-room shop a couple steps above the pavement. The walls are a faded green color that shows the paint strokes, and the floor is covered with blankets and cushions. Several handbags in bright, saturated colors hang on the back wall, and a beat up metal bookcase holds a small selection of mismatched fabrics.
Her name is Meena, which I would have known if I'd looked above my head where a small, colorful sign reads, "Meena's Henna and Fabrics." She wants to sell something, too. And she's either a wonderful saleswoman, or I'm an easy target because it isn't long into our conversation that she kindly hands me her business card and asks me to return if I want to get henna.
She wins me over. I wave goodbye, pick up my feet, and continue my "no thank you's" for the rest of the short walk to my hotel.
Several days later I am headed to my daily lesson with a Sanskrit scholar I managed to find online when I arrived. We meet in the morning in an effort to beat the midday heat. He has no other students right now because this is the off-season. It's 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and the prospect of walking a half-mile is daunting. I have to drag myself out of my air-conditioned room to make it on time.
This morning the alleyways are more confronting than usual. My entire experience in India, of course, has not been all rainbows and butterflies and spiritual magic. It has been equal parts rewarding and challenging, and today I can't keep it together. While I have grown somewhat used to seeing dire situations play out on the streets of many cities in this country, my familiarity with it does not make me numb. I arrive at the shala fighting back tears.
I try to hide it, but it's written all over my face. I'm not one for covert emotions. My teacher isn't here yet. I'm met by the shala owner. He teaches various yoga classes during the busy season and lets the Sanskrit teacher use the space for lessons. He joins us every day because the Sanskrit teacher doesn't speak English, and I don't speak Hindi.
I usually arrive early, and we chat about yoga, travel, religion, and food. He tells tales of the old guru-student relationship that is now rare and laughs when I ask him how we're supposed to follow some of the old, obscure teachings in modern life.
Today he has read my face and is concerned.
"You can't chant like this!" he says. And he's right.
I unravel more while recounting my experience, and he listens intently. I don't know what kind of response I expect, but when he tells me that a true yogi would not cry and be so reactive it takes everything in me not to cry even more. Now not only am I overwhelmed by the confronting nature of this city, but I'm also no longer a yogi.
"A yogi must understand that the world is full of experiences trying to get a rise out of you, and you must see it as an opportunity to return to the stillness of your mind," he says with sincerity and force.
He is right, of course, in a theoretical way. But in practice on the streets of Varanasi I'm both human and yogi, and today human is winning. When my Sanskrit teacher arrives they confer with one another in Hindi. He offers to reschedule our lesson, but I want to save face. With my mere mortal powers I attempt to pull myself together.
The rote nature of these lessons is a perfect distraction. I don't tell him this for fear that it might be yet another non-yogic quality. As usual my teacher hands me a copy of the Yoga Sutra in Sanskrit, which I open briefly until he insists that I close it and repeat the mantras from memory. I've grown to wonder why he bothers with the book at all, but I'm happy to play along.
Nearly two hours of chanting causes a palpable shift in energy. I'm ready to face Varanasi again.
The shala owner offers to drive me back to my hotel on his motorbike. I don't have the heart to tell him that this is actually more anxiety ridden than me walking alone. I take a deep breath, swing my leg over the backseat, and cling onto the sidebars the same way I'm trying to cling onto the calm mental state I had just cultivated.
Like all the motorbikes in Varanasi he comes within inches of sleeping dogs, and he honks as the handlebars brush up against pedestrians' arms. My covered knees occasionally graze the cement walls of the alleys, and my eyes stay glued to the back of his head.
I'm relieved when my feet again touch the ground. I decide to keep moving, and I know exactly where I need to go: Meena's.
Those of us that haven't quite mastered the art of total non-reaction occasionally have to work from the outside in, and I am hoping that some henna on my hands will be enough to remind me of that.
"Hi Meena!" I say, standing at the same spot where she greeted me days earlier.
I walk right into the little shop, discarding my shoes on the two steps up to the cushioned floor. She has a blank look on her face and clearly doesn't recognize me. I'm not the only one she has recently made a very personal sales pitch to.
She hands me a folder of designs, pages of grainy, black and white photos printed on computer paper and slightly tattered at the edges. I describe what I like about a couple of them and ask her to do whatever she thinks looks nice.
She offers me a cushion to sit on, and I happily settle in, tucked away from the outside world. This tiny shop is right in the thick of it, but it feels separate. Like you can look out on the chaos, but the room itself is so ordinary that not many passerbys look in. If they do, they keep moving. I've been sold on something, but no one can try to sell me on anything else while I sit here.
As I exhale into this comfort, I realize that I was so happily sold on this something that I didn't even ask the for the price. Any hope of bargaining is gone as she carefully prepares the small metal tube of henna ink.
I ask, "how much?"
She grabs my hand, glances at the designs I liked, and marks the top of my forearm, near my inner elbow, with her pinkie.
"This big? 200 rupees."
Three dollars. I would have said yes to anything at this point. She starts piping the dark brown gel onto my arm with precision and speed. Her movement is astonishingly fluid for such an intricate design. I quickly pull out my phone with my free arm to take a photo.
Her young son has been playing with a toy car near my feet, and he catches sight of my phone immediately. He gestures to see the photos, and I ask him to take a selfie with me. He pages through my photo albums, and I surrender my phone to him.
In Hindi he points out all of the temples in Varanasi I have photographed to his mom, who nods in return and gestures for him to return my phone. I gesture back that don't mind; he can keep looking. It isn't long before he's bored with photos and moves on to games. He and Meena exchange more words in Hindi, while Meena's eyes stay on my arm.
"You like?" she glances up at me and back at the design. She has drawn a lotus flower. This was my only request.
I tell her I love it. She smiles and continues toward my palm. Her son is pleased with the game and turns to show me the phone for a moment. I start to say something, but the screen commands his attention. I ask Meena about her family.
I tend to be cautious with what I ask people. While it seems to be fair game for anyone to ask me if I'm married or have a boyfriend or how old I am or where my family is or why I'm traveling alone, I find that when I ask questions in return they're sometimes met with resistance.
Meena tells me about her son. His school is out for the day, but her daughter attends a different school. The three of them live with her parents, and she used to operate her business out of their home. For 15 years she's been doing henna, and she takes great pride in her designs. She points at a sign just across the street; it's another henna shop. There's a large photo of simple flower on the back of a hand and some symmetrical designs on a palm. Clearly less intricate than her work.
"300 they charge for that!" she says with a sense of disgust.
She tells me more about her kids, and we talk about the local food. When she finishes I marvel at her work. I pay her, and she invites me to stay. It should dry for ten minutes, she says. Then another few hours before the gel peels off, and the stain is left.
"Wait here just so it doesn't smudge," she insists.
She doesn't even know me, but if she did she'd know I'm so clumsy that I would find a way to destroy the design in my two minute walk back to the hotel.
I stay and watch her son become frustrated with the game and then come close to deleting many of my apps. I help him find a new game, and his eyes light up.
I ask her more about her shop. She moved her business here 6 years ago when it got busy.
"When I opened here I was the only woman with a shop," she motions to the rest of the block and surrounding maze of alleyways before continuing.
"In our culture having a business isn't something women do. They all laughed at me. Sometimes I would close early and go home crying."
She turns he gaze toward the ground as tears fill her eyes. I'm taken aback and find myself both empathetic and selfishly comforted to be sitting with a fellow human who reacts with emotion. I continue to listen, unsure of what to say.
"But then they started to see my success. I had many clients and beautiful designs and so much success that now there are many henna shops in this area."
Her eyes beam with pride.
"One copied my name to steal my customers!"
This is something I've seen all over India. Shops, restaurants, and even hotels take on the name of another already successful business hoping to piggyback and dupe customers. They even pay rickshaw and taxi drivers to tell tourists that the original location moved or burned down in order to bring them to their business instead.
Meena has tried to get ahead of this scam by selling fabrics, too. She hands me another business card, and this time I notice that it displays her henna on one side and fabrics on the other.
Meena's Henna and Fabrics.
"Now people know which is the real one because I have fabrics, too," she says with a clever smile.
My own discomfort from the morning feels a little petty. I'm overwhelmed just by being an outsider witnessing these streets, but she's living it. And not only living it, but pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a woman here.
I don't know how to thank her enough. She changed my arm, and she changed my day. Things are best fixed from within, but sometimes it helps to start from the outside. An arm full of henna serves as an external reminder of beauty, and eventually the mind follows.
Before I leave I ask her son to take a photo of Meena and me. He clicks several and returns the screen to a game. It takes some convincing to get my phone back from him, and as soon as it leaves his hands he returns to the toy car. I wave goodbye and promise to return tomorrow to show her the completed stain once the gel peels away.
I cross the small threshold from the shop to the pavement. The streets are the same, but they feel a little different. As though there is space to slow down amidst the dust and noise and movement and, "ma'am chai?"
I smile and say, "no thank you."