It is about poverty. And apathy. And perhaps the most confusing of it all, it is about blind faith. The belief that a dip in the cold, poisonous waters will grant you absolution. (See Trilokjit’s brilliant images here.)
The Kumbh is not a leveler. In fact, it is the complete opposite. The rich complete their dips with police protection. The poor just wait their turn and hope the mounted policemen will not trample upon their belongings.
It is a depressing sight. And you are subjected to it purely because there is no place to sit. So you slowly walk through the dusty, golden park. All 50 square kilometers of it, trying to make sense of it all. Open toilets with women and men in full view of each other performing their ablutions. The policemen on duty standing there chewing tobacco and joking and pointing at the squatting women who in turn are trying their best to cover their faces. Women as old as our mothers. Helpless and without a shred of dignity they squat as the policemen and their sons look on.
You might try and walk away. But there are constant tugs at your feet, your legs. People asking you for a little water. Or asking if you have seen their missing son. Do you at least know the way to the lost person’s camp – can you help them by making an announcement? They don’t ask for food or money. They just want some help. The lost persons’ broadcast tower is two kilometers away and will cost you two hours just to get to the microphone. It’s freezing and crowded and your eyes are still burning. So you look away and ignore the pleas. But the image stays with your forever.
You try and distract yourself. You look around for the Nagas. That should be worth it. But they are there smoking their hashish in their comfortable tents equipped with Wi-Fi and foreign journalists who they are devoting all their time to. You catch a glimpse of them as their disciples shoo you off. The golden light makes the colour of your skin apparent, so what if you have a giant lens yourself. You can hear their voices from within. “Karma important, not money”, they say. The blonde woman who holds the recorder nods gravely and takes notes.
A pilgrimage is all about suffering. You push all the boundaries of human endurance and brave the elements to show the absentee gods how much you believe in their existence. And in their ability to absolve you of your sins. It is about penance. And nothing is more relevant than penance. If you choose suffering, you can be forgiven for all the wrongs that you might have committed.
And somehow, the already suffering millions believe that the path to absolution lies in yet more misery.
This is the heart of India that we have only heard about. This is the India that we always knew existed. But walking amongst them and hearing their cries of pain are just things you can never get used to. So what if 32 of them died in a stampede caused by an inhuman lathi charge? So what if they poured the holy water that they were carrying back home on the lifeless corpses hoping they will come back to life?
If you didn’t get to the Kumbh, you didn’t miss a rave party. But you did miss out on getting acquainted with some of your fellow Indians. Millions of people who are so cut off from your psyche that you don’t believe really exist. You might be ashamed of them. You might be disgusted at how they live. Or you might be saddened by their plight. But the one thing you cannot do is ignore the fact that they exist.
This is for them.
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