My friend looks at me, head cocked to the side, and says, “Passive observation. If that isn’t all of happiness, it’s at least a necessary component.”

He knows what I’m thinking most of the time, and most of the time I’m thinking, “Man, this place makes people wise.”

We are talking over lunch about happiness and joy, most people weighing in on their definitions, when they feel happiest. We eat roti and daal with our hands and laugh at each other trying to make Hindi sounds. We sing the soundtrack of The Lion King 2.

I’m happiest when I transcend my own judgement. When someone starts to say something I disagree with, and I feel my throat tense, ready to interject, to prove myself, to add my two cents, but then I listen instead. I observe myself within my world; a bystander to the miracle which is existence. I’m watching us laugh and eat, i’m watching myself not share my story that I think is funnier or more extreme than the one being told. I pull my lips a little tighter against my teeth and stare at the 8 strangers around the table. We couldn’t be more different, by America’s standards at least, and we click. We’ve known each other for almost three weeks, and we barely know each other’s past. I guess knowing that these are the kind of people who are drawn to Varanasi, the holiest, dirtiest, and oldest city in the world, is enough for us.

We are walking later with Anjay. If anyone knows Banaras, its Anjay. This is his city. Pick up any book about the place, and he will get a shout out, a thank you, a “dhanyavad,” for showing the author the city in a way he could have never seen it otherwise. He glides through the alleys and storefronts with absurd grace, gently touching people (distinct from the harsh shove most Bananasi’s exercise) as they part for his path. He’s a wise man. Everyone knows him and smiles. I haven’t seen these men smile before.

We walk as a group through temples and Ghats, alleys and restaurants. Our feet are muddy. We arrive at a Bodhi tree in the old city. “I love seeing roots break through the stone,” my friend says. “I just love complex root systems.” He knows what I’m thinking again. When nature overcomes I cheer for it. I smile at the moss, at the grass poking through the cracks of a new cement block. It’s the ever evidence of the contrast, the cycle, and the unison of this world.

This is the most holy city in the world. It is considered to not actually sit on the earth but rather hover above it, serving as the center of the universe–– as the liaison to Moksha, to heaven, to higher being. The rivers are clogged with trash. There is no drainage and when it rains the cow shit washes over everything. I watch a woman beat her child on my way to the river. The men stare at me, at all the women, piercing them with vacant eyes. Children touch my feet and beg for rupees.

When I came here I thought you needed to be a hardened person to live here. You needed to be the kind of person so distant, detached that you could watch by a starving woman, say JiNahi, avoid eye contact with every male, get rammed by a water buffalo, and inhale human ash from the burning carcasses around you and feel nothing. I was wrong.

It takes a heart to relish in the contrast. To take a step back and to observe. To not settle for monotony, but rather to yearn for the rich itching intensity of discomfort and light.

We are on the water, floating (quite literally) upstream along the Ganges. There is a reason people chose to view the city this way. From this view you see the cremations, the bathers, the candles floating in the water, all drenched in the hazy fog of dusk. You look on from your gentle rocking and you feel your heart beat and your breath intake. You witness the harshest extremes the world has to offer coexisting, being played out before you on the stage of this sacred, eternal river.

But you don’t think any of this. For the first true time in your life, you don’t think anything at all. You are outside and within. You are. I am.

We step off the boat, a pack of rowdy American 20 somethings filing in a hushed line. An hour spent in evening silence, unintentionally. We float off, gliding on our paths, without a word, but with an understanding. We delve back deep into the heart of the city. We all go home.

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