I hope I still have some of his hair on my headphones. They got tangled when he put them on to watch the video. His hair was wispy and dry as tinder: the sort of hair that would burn fast in a riverside cremation. His face was lined with age but boyishly handsome. It expressed such a depth of warmth and affection that all I could do was grin back at it. When he smiled the creases disappeared and this effect made him look younger than his advanced years. He was the only person I have ever met who managed to be wise and adorable in equal measure.
His mannerisms weren’t marked by arrogance either; they weren’t haughty or stern like some religious men. There was something immediately relatable in his smile and bearing. I had seen something close to madness looking into the eyes of holy men in India, blank and trance-like stares conveying a sense of frightening devotion. This vacant look, which was absorbing but which I could never really comprehend, was absent in this man. In his eyes I saw a human, gentle and benevolent.
His name was Baba Mri Thyum Jai, and I had been searching for him.
Baba Mri Thyum Jai
At the start of my Indian trip I had met a filmmaker in Mysore who had recently made a documentary about Varanasi. This holy man, who had renounced all worldly things, had been interviewed and much of the film revolved around his softly-spoken reflections on Hinduismâ€™s holiest city. The filmmaker was desperate for Baba Jai to see the finished film. I was on my way north, I had access to YouTube and owned headphones – I was the perfect candidate for the job. Entrusted with a mission, I arrived in Varanasi with a sense of quest.
But now suddenly I only had one day left to meet him. I’m not sure why this happened, perhaps an inclination for a dramatic finale, or my debilitating tendency to put things off until the last minute. For three days I had wandered the lanes of Varanasi drinking lime juice, sweating and avoiding cows, which seemed hugely-proportioned as they loped their way through the tiny paths that made up the old city.
Observing Babaâ€™s Home
I had observed, I had listened, and I had smelt the place, trying to comprehend each ceremony, the cremations and the intense atmosphere of religious fervour. There had been exciting things to behold, visual treats to relish, but I felt apart from it all â€“ a passing observer. It was time to single out a face in the crowd.
As I made my way through the throng to the riverbank that evening, the city was alive with an early-evening sense of occasion. The hot intensity of the day, a torpid heat that invited slow lingering, had given way to a breeze, and a half-moon gave fresh impetus to the cityâ€™s inhabitants, propelling them towards the riverside like thirst-driven animals drawn to a waterhole.
I located him quicker than I had anticipated. He sat on the steps of Dr. Rajendra Prasad ghat a little away from the main footfall.
“Baba Mri Thum Jai? I’m a friend of Raghuveer’s…the documentary…”, I said tentatively.
“Raghuveer…”. He repeated the name slowly, like a philosopher musing on some abstract concept. In this utterance it was clear he was accessing a deep well of memories, reflecting on the times they had spent together.
His awkward and reverent handling of the headphones made me smile. They were fantastically incongruous with the rest of his belongings. At least eight different necklaces of gemstones adorned his smooth chest, and daubs of white paint marked his lean arms. His sadhu’s orange robe hung from the metal rail behind him, a curiously modern framing for a picture of ancient splendour such as him. I felt decidedly under-dressed in my Adidas training top.
He was fixated by the entire fifteen minutes and laughed heartily at some scenes. His pupils widened with concentration when he couldn’t understand the voice-over and his blue eyes danced with joy at the novelty of the playback. At times he seemed critical of his performance, frowning like an actor viewing his first big scene in the edit room; after all it’s quite something to watch yourself back on camera. Perhaps self-consciousness is a universal trait.
Baba on the Banks of the Ganges
The film played out, and he sat back content. I was ushered onto the mat beside him. I fancy I spied envious glances from passing tourists while he tussled playfully with my hair and chanted melodic Hindi verse in my ear. It was a blessing my friend later told me; not the bogus benedictions often forced on hustled tourists, but a genuine and heartfelt invocation of a man’s faith.
The calm was broken when a tourist thrust his camera towards us and a cumbersome teen almost trampled us in his bid to get centre-spot for a selfie. Turning angrily to confront the intrusion, my protests melted away when I saw Baba Jai, who occupying only these few square feet in this vast town and whose little world had been so crassly invaded, sat serene and laughing: a wise Rafiki to my hot-headed Simba. Such things mattered little to him.
The mingled speech of a hundred nationalities rose in pitch as the crowd swelled around us. But like old friends who don’t feel the need to talk we sat in comfortable silence: we were unspoken companions this night, content to watch and be watched.
My Varanasi Takeaways
Hinduism was still largely incomprehensible to me, with its perplexing pantheon of deities and rituals. I had not found some new understanding of Man’s search for God, nor had I intended to when I set out to meet this man. I was only the messenger in this tale, a conduit between the teller of the story and the protagonist. In essence I had merely shown a man a documentary he had featured in, but it was a special moment for both of us, and I will remember it for a very long time.
I told our Baba I would return before I left Varanasi but in my heart I knew I wouldn’t. At the top of the steps I turned back to watch him. He was a picture of perfect contentment: a resplendent figure in an immense crowd, cross-legged and swaying slightly to the tune of his own songs which melted to nothing on the breeze and the din of a thousand voices. Nothing lasts of course, but it was difficult in that moment of parting not to imagine that bright flame of a man lighting the entranceway to Mother Ganga forever.
Written by: Robert Scott
Robert is a teacher and fledgling travel writer. Born in England but raised in Malawi you’ll probably find him somewhere between those two places…His most recent project saw him editing a travel documentary series in India. You can find a selection of his tales from the road (and life in general) on his website faroverthewater.wordpress.com .