“Temple on the Ganges”: An Ugly American’s True Story

Varanasi

In holy city of Varanasi
On the banks of the Sacred Ganga
Snaking in fetid glory
Before its rooftop restaurant
There’s a hotel called
“The Temple on the Ganges”
Yoga and meditation classes there are free.

Walk up the temple’s dusty stone stairs
Our room is the first on the right
#26
A heavy steel padlock seals the door
On an isolated landing
Like a forgotten prison cell.

The room is small and cramped
Its walls shocking pink.
Two beds meld together
In its center
Leaving little room to breathe.
But the sheets are clean,
And the blankets warm against Varanasi’s smoky cold.
In front of the beds,
A Flat screen TV adorns the wall
With its cable box ridiculously tucked behind.
No chair in sight or desk.
The bathroom has an orange plastic bucket
Beneath the shower head
That sprays everything before it.
When lifted, the toilet seat flops to the ground.

Two floors above
Is the Temple’s “Rooftop Restaurant”
With square slate tables
Laid out like chessboards
On top of thick stone legs.
The lawn chairs there are dingy white plastic.

A strangely thin small-boned waiter
Wrapped in a scarf,
With a blue watch cap perched on the back of his head
Takes your orders.
A half hour later
As you shiver in the morning cold
Your pancakes finally arrive:
Smothered in orange marmalade.
The coffee is already mixed with milk.

“Where are you from?”
The waiter asks
In English heavily accented but clear
And thoughtful.
“The United States,”
We answer.
The waiter smiles,
“Ah, Amayreekah!” he says.
“Veddy Goot cahntree!”
He nods his head.
“Thank you,” we all reply.

“All of India,” he recalls
Was weeping and praying for you,
Years ago
When those terrorists destroyed your towers
In New York City –
Veddy Bad!”
He is rueful, sincere
And seems close to tears.
Again we say “thanks.”

The pancakes have not yet arrived.
So gazing at the Sacred Ganges, the waiter continues,
“Four months ago, in July and August,
During the monsoons,
A dam broke up river.
Everything you see before you
And so much of India was covered with water
For six weeks.
Many homes were destroyed!”
He points a bony finger towards the river.
“Do you see that white mark on that building over there?”
He asks.
The high water mark we see
At his direction
is perhaps three meters off the ground.
“The water was that high,” he says.
Then he adds,
“One hundred thousand people drowned in that flood –
One hundred thousand!
Perhaps you read about it in your newspapers?”

Embarrassed, we look at each other blankly.
“No,” we’re forced to confess,
“We don’t remember . . . .”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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