Writer Charles Graeber: Ad Hoc Enlightenment on India’s Ganges

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In an attempt to spread the word about our new, excellent, eminently purchasable anthology, we’ve been reaching out to various contributors, whose superior pieces of journalism appear in the collection. One such is Charles Graeber, who traveled India’s Ganges River in “Being the Boatman.” We asked Charlie if he wouldn’t mind writing something up that would give some insight to his story, and his relationship with the subcontinent. It would be small, amusing, and for the blog, we said. Weeks passed, no word. And suddenly, a few days back, a rambling tale (with footnotes!) arrives in our inbox. It’s funny and sad and true and…pretty long. Sometimes, with writers, and Charlie in particular, you get more than you bargain for. And for that we are so grateful. Enjoy this, and buy the book—because even though it’s not as free, it’s even better. —Ryan Bradley

Photograph by Ryan Bradley 

To read Charlie's tale, see after the jump.

I don’t consider that I know India, really. And yet, India is one of my favorite places. The reason for both statements is that India is big and old and famously full of people.

But here’s the thing about stories: they are usually about something. They have a beginning and an end. And they must have a reason for being- for being written, and for being read.

So: You type INDIA across the top of the page then your fingers hover over the keys and…hover. And nothing.

You blink and focus. Across America, spoons are bending in their drawers but no words. Why?

Maybe because India is too big and old and full of people. So big and old and full that it’s impossible to know what to say or how to start. One can say nothing, or everything, and still be both right and wrong. And still, you must start, and end, and have a reason for it.

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My first trip to India was a giant walkabout. I went with a plastic shoulder bag the size of an airplane pillow. The goal was—well, there were a few of them. One was to see Hinduism in action1. The other was to clear my head and get my act together. I wanted to get some thinking done. For some reason, I thought India would be the place to do it.
At the time, I was living in Budapest, which I’d arrived at a year earlier, from the East after months of increasingly rough and destitute travel,2 and which I was soon to leave after spiraling into depression and going on a ‘red diet’ consisting mostly of red wine, plum brandy, tomatoes and steak tartar.

There was a girlfriend issue, but that was only part of it. The other was general malaise. I was spending most of my productive hours laboring over multi-chaptered narrative prose poems. Which, you know, weren’t helping anybody, directly. People were out there, doing things, plowing fields, saving lives, feeding the hungry. I was re-structuring sentences. I was feeling out of touch, un-grounded, abstract. As if I was already dead, and if not dead, who could prove it? I began to wonder how long before a neighbor—a Mrs. Szeiplaki Ference downstairs probably—reported the smell to the proper authorities. I wanted to be more than a smell. Or less.

India—well, it seemed like the sort of place where questions like that get sorted out.

I had a plan. I was broke and cheap to boot, so I decided I’d get myself as far as Istanbul, the air-hub for the region, and hang around drinking apple tea and smoking cigarettes and working the airfares in the bucket shops until some miraculously free-ish ticket came available.

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There are so many gods—each with a special animal or costume or necklace or weapon—that the statue section of the more inclusive shrines look like a Playmobil superstore. 

Infinite gods with infinite names and infinite accessories. And infinite means to worship them. Everything and nothing, wise or crazy. This is India. Or part of India. And what do you say about it? And how do you travel within it? Where do you start, where do you go and why? And how could you possibly write a story about that?

I got to Istanbul. But, it turns out, Istanbul isn’t the air-hub. Turns out, it’s Athens. I could leave Istanbul, get to Athens, but the attendant travel wasn’t going to save me any money. I was stuck. There was nothing to do but drink more tea, and wait.

Waiting on a cheap ticket—spending time without spending money—requires a certain brand of Zen. I think of it as financial hibernation. In order to reduce meal requirements, the traveler’s metabolism grinds to tick-tock slowness. To stave-off boredom, to keep insanity as your pet and not vice-versa, the minute details of normal life- the sort of thing which a busy man might ignore completely—must be magnified and studied until they fill the time completely.

Soon, dazed by hunger, drunk on an unhinged clock, the city becomes a book of study. When I arrived, I heard the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, and I heard them only as sirens, one and the same. By the time I left, I knew that each minaret carried a distinctive plea in a singer’s unique style. At prayer time the old city echoed with human birdsong.

The ticket in my hand was cheap, so I didn’t worry about the details, like the layover in Lahore Pakistan. Or the fact that the layover would require a visa.

After much kerfluffle, Pakistani customs solved the problem by having armed soldiers escort me to a closet. I was locked in with piled office furniture for some 18 hours3. Oddly, it didn’t much bother me. I studied the mounded desks and chairs like cloud shapes. Then I curled up on the floor and slept. I must have still been in hibernation mode.

Then they woke me. I remember this leg of the journey like a dream. A long up-escalator of men in white salwar kameez, like angels commuting to heaven. All of them watching the dirty American with armed escort. And then the plane, with its beautiful plane meal and convenient plane toilet, and then Delhi airport, past the taxi wallahs in paper hats, into a wind, hot and quick as an oven door opening. And so on, to the walkabout itself.

Which, as I mention in the story, was my first trip to India, and sometimes more on the Karma-Cola beaten backpacker path than I was able to recognize at the time. At the time, everything was new and novel and challenging. Especially my stay on the Kashmiri Dal Lake during the ongoing Civil War4, or the weeks spent in Dharamsala where, coincidental timing, I was just in time to receive the blessing of the Dali Lama5, which sounds like a joke but couldn’t have felt more serious at the time, and to follow that up, newly charged with a sense of purpose, to study some rudiments of Tibetan Medicine at their medical school, walking up and down the footpath from town, ducking monkey poop (naughty monkeys) in the Himalayan foothills to trade lessons with a middle-aged monk. 6
This telling can quickly bog down in rambling anecdote. Which is maybe the reason that, years later, I was so eager to return to India, not for a survey this time, but a study. For reasons that I explain in the story, the Ganges seemed like a perfect starting point—not the only correct one, but right enough. I believed that I could do anything in India, and come up with similar conclusions but a totally different story.7

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I think a serviceable definition of “Adventure,” at least for me, is an excellent experience which, if you truly knew what lay ahead during in the planning stages, you would never have undertaken.

At the time, I didn’t imagine packs of dogs with human arms between their teeth; or me, barefoot in a loin cloth, stepping through an crème briolette-like crust of unknown green material and sinking into a La Brea of unknown black and potentially human material. I really didn’t see that coming. In fact, I had packed hand sanitizer. My plan was not to really touch the river, but when I did touch it, the hand sanitizer. That plan didn’t last long.

I’m happy for that, in retrospect. But at the time, the shocking conflux of the sacred and the grody dominated my consciousness, to the extent that the working title for the story was: Holy Shit!

I typed it up (“Holy Shit,” by Charles Graeber), and handed it in. At which point my editor gently suggested I come up with alternatives to having the word ‘shit’ in a headline. The result being, "Being the Boatman."

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I truly enjoy reading about fearless men and women, or experts engaging their subject in the field, I love those adventure stories. But I’m neither fearless nor an expert. My sense of adventure approximates something closer to Holy Shit.

It’s hard not to get philosophical here, to stink up the story with Deep Thoughts—but simply put, I believe in Holy Shit. The Holy Shit moment is transformative. Especially when you realize, hey, my Holy Shit is someone else’s daily life. People are different. The world is big and old and full.

For some reason, it’s easier, for me at least, to understand this in a place like India. But I’m sure the same thing is essentially possible in Connecticut.

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1Hinduism, in my understanding, assumes that people are fundamentally different, and allows for enough gods to cover all those differences. 

2 There’s a really very long version of this detail but I won’t go into it at this point. Suffice to say that I’d moved to East Berlin but then moved on, heading north and East, re-uniting with a girlfriend, returning with her overland to Moscow before heading down to Vogolgrad, by train, and then down the Volga to its delta at Astrakhan before crossing the Black Seas on a small ship with Dagerstani shepherds, then catching rides back west and finally, after a breakdown in Romania and some explosive food poisoning, arriving ill and stinking of gasoline in a park in Budapest, where I left my girlfriend on a bench, told her I’d be back and not to poop herself, and came back, 8 hours later, with a place to stay and a job: my first newspaper job. I was to be the new Society Columnist for the Budapest Sun— which quickly became a column about being a barfly, since there wasn’t much ‘society’ in country only recently removed from Communism. I took the job because I had a camera and, improbably, a tuxedo, both of which stank of gasoline, neither of which I actually used. As said, long story. And anyway, much of this un-visa-ed travel was technically illegal at that point and only facilitated by making fake passport stamps with Exacto-knives and potatoes and home-made official letters of transit which had nothing official about them other than the fact of being printed out by a computer rather than laboriously typed on onionskin. Innocent forgeries like these were much easier in the early 90s.

3 There was a very nice man put in charge of my situation, a thin fellow in too-large a hat and mustache who was too shy to even attempt conversation, but whose empathy allowed him to imagine my bladder was twice as active as necessary.

4 The houseboats on the Dal are famous tourist destinations; the odd thing was the war.

5 While exchanging scarves with him, which is how the blessing is bestowed, I had the distinct picture in my mind of each of his eyes being the bald head of a laughing infant peeking out from an infinity of familial patchwork quilts. I know that sounds over-wrought but it was the instant thought and for whatever reason I remember that and not the man’s actual face before me.

6The lessons were hopelessly lopsided- his knowledge of the ancient Tibetan healing arts for my how-to notes on writing and publishing, as the monks wanted to start a magazine.

7 I sought out the advice of fortune tellers when I first arrived, open to the notion that they might give me an alternate ‘quest’. I’d follow that quest to the next fortune teller, and so-on. What I had in mind was something like a sub continental Don Quixote. Nice idea, but no dice. Fortune tellers give extremely vague directions.