Better than Varanasi

In northern India, a meal made over a dunghill fire turns a detour into an arrival

By / December 2015

My friend Shailendra is from the outskirts of Varanasi. Shortly after I met him, he asked me, “When will you come to my home?” I told him I would love to. But in truth I was more interested in seeing Varanasi. The city is legendary for its ghats, a series of steps along the Ganges River, as well as for its temple to Shiva, which draws Hindus from all over. Dunking in the Ganges, legend has it, brings forgiveness of sins. Dying there is said to bring about nothing less than moksha, freedom from the cycle of life and death.

Shailendra kept asking. I kept stalling. But on a warm February morning, after several back-and-forths, we finally hired a taxi, having settled on a three-day trip, one day to drive to Shailendra’s house, one to see Varanasi, one for the drive back to Delhi.

The first leg of the journey took eleven hours and would have taken longer had the driver not handled the two-lane roads as if he were practicing for the World Championship Grand Prix. He barreled past slower traffic and played chicken with oncoming trucks through fields of mustard plants and villages with mud-huts, barely missing the people, cows, chickens, donkeys and goats in the middle of the road.

We arrived at Shailendra’s village around sundown. Dunghill-lined dirt roads snaked around houses with tin-roofs. I had always imagined India as one long jam-packed city of endless buildings and endless people. But the village was open, uncramped, uncrowded. Unlike the city we had journeyed from, there was a pleasant quietness broken only by the occasional car or motorcycle jetting by.

Shailendra asked the taxi driver to stop so that he could buy meat from a butcher standing beside a small cage of live chickens. The driver was nonplussed. He seemed used to this kind of thing. Meat in tow, Shailendra stepped back into the cab. The smell of manure and raw meat mixed. I felt sick, and not only to my stomach. This was the opposite of Varanasi, with its incense, colors, and sadhus dressed in saffron.

“My house,” Shailendra said, as if seeking to reassure me, “is very nice,” but when we pulled up to it a few minutes later, I saw that it was two squat stories of unpainted cement. At the door, a weathered, middle-age woman smoking a long pipe greeted me. Her wrinkly face, darkened skin, and calloused hands betrayed years of hard work.

Smoke filled the room. Over a dunghill fire, she was preparing something in a pot. “Namaste” she said to me, with her hands together. Shailendra touched her feet, a sign of respect for superiors in Indian culture. His face lit up. “This is my mother,” he said. “Namaste” I replied.

As they caught up in Hindi, I looked around. The dirt floors were beaten down from years of foot traffic. There were no chairs, no decorations on the walls, no furniture, no tables–only two small stools that sat six inches above the ground, a small pit for making a fire, and dung ready for burning. A second woman was in the room, a neighbor from the village. She and Shailendra’s mother were preparing to cook his favorite curry dish with the chicken we had purchased by the road.

Shailendra showed me around. In the room upstairs, plywood beds were veiled with mosquito nets. The windows were square holes in the walls. Shailendra’s mother brought up a dinner of chicken curry and roti, a perfect blend of spices and textures, the roti still warm from the fire.

One light bulb hung from the ceiling and in the dim light of that dangling bulb, as the dusk outside gave way to night, we ate the meal, exchanging few words, the language barrier between us hardened perhaps by our weariness from the trip. Even so, I could tell from the look on his face that Shailendra was in heaven. By then, I wasn’t far behind. I had forgotten all about my sickness from the car ride. If we never made it to Varanasi I couldn’t have cared less.


This is Robert Smythe’s first piece for EthnoTraveler.