Varanasi is a fascinating perfume. It smells like baking hot sun on a mud-cracked river basin; warm, dirty, vast in scope, human and poignant, with a tangible mysticism rooted in its theme: the holiest of Hindu pilgrim sites, where the funeral pyres burn continuously, forever, in an open-aired cycle of life of death. There is an ashen quality, like grey clay; incense; a smattered of spices; a thick centre of gurjun balsam, cardamom, saffron oud and spikenard over leather and animal notes that feels more ‘experiential’ than personal-sensual – very centred on an unfamiliar emotion – although the whole glows with a unification of ingredients that works. Peculiar, exacting, – it lasts a very long time on skin, and is somewhat linear, like an immeasurable panorama majestically rising up and then slowly fading from view: a curious scent that does feel alive with another person’s memory of a place I have never been.
I have never been to India. We would both love to go there, but there is just one thing preventing us. Our stomachs. Even Meo Fusciuni, the creator of this Italian perfume line, clearly very passionate about this work, cannot help mentioning in his travelogues some inevitable references to terrible illnesses, stomach cramps, shivers; quite frightening and hallucinatory sickness; almost every person I have ever spoken to who has been there, many multiple times, because they become addicted to something there that I want to know myself, say that although on certain occasions they will be fine, equally often they will not. Madame Persolaise and her consort go to India for months at a time, often without incident, others quite desperately ill. A Canadian friend of mine who has travelled through much of the country and loves nowhere better, tells me that such is her great yearning for the place, she accepts the ‘Delhi Belly’ as just a part of the general experience that for people not from India cannot be avoided. You move through it and move on. The pros outweigh the cons. I am still not sure, though. Having experienced true horror in Laos when I thought Duncan was lying dead before me in the middle of the night (out stone cold, unconscious, white as a sheet, naked on the hotel bathroom floor in Vientiane – see full story here), I am afraid of it happening again. Having suffered a different gastric flu in Cambodia, his body so hot in our hotel in Pnom Penh it was almost painful to touch, as well as my own terrible bout of incapacitating stomach illnesses in Java, where I couldn’t leave my hotel room for days, and was very weakened, I know we both have very delicate entrails and I have to always weigh this up against considerations of spiritual ravishment and aesthetic delectation. Hopefully I have not become a total coward and a bore, but I think the older you get, the less you are willing to put your system through it. Vietnam was fine – D pronounced the food there the best he has ever eaten and the cuisine that most suits him: our worst was surprisingly our travels through Mexico, which violently didn’t agree with us. Whatever oil is used in the food there simply didn’t suit – not to be too graphic, but the toilet bowl issues you usually expect from these travesties to the intestinal tract were quite the opposite in every place we went to there. I don’t think either of us could go for what felt like weeks. Bloated beyond reckoning. Duncan just eventually stopped eating.
Intestines aside (we both adore Indian food, and I have poor impulse control: what would I do, just eat crackers and try to resist it? I would be doomed), I know in my heart I would be ecstatically hyperstimulated the moment I arrived anywhere in India, a feeling I long for again. Like most people I miss travelling, the absorption of the newness making each day seem three times longer than a normal one, the osmosis through the skin membrane of the colours and the smells into your bloodstream and memorybrain, even if my recollections of all the places I have been in my life still percolate through my veins and flash into my mind’s eye on a regular basis – I have not yet reached cultural cabin fever. I am still ok for now, still fine with just Kamakura, but I know once the vaccinations are all done – so wonderful they are working – and the airlines are back up in the air with regular passengers, the wanderlust will naturally rear its head. We were once fairly recently on the verge of booking a trip to Chennai and Colombo; we quite fancy going to the Philippines as well. I wonder if we will after all make it to India. There is always that hesitation. I once knew some Japanese freshmen in my company who, in order to celebrate getting jobs and wanting to bond hard on a special trip together, went to Varanasi, where they jumped gung ho right into the Ganges and then spent the entire week violently ill in their hotel rooms. I don’t think I could go into the water myself, but I don’t doubt for a moment that witnessing, and smelling, the funeral rites, the continual cremations of corpses, done publicly day and night by the banks of the river, must in some ways alter your interior landscape.. “Varanasi is my India”, Fusciuni writes. “When you listen to Varanasi, imagine the water, flowing in the bowels of the earth, touching the roots of everything, nourishing our soul. Varanasi is an olfactory mandala”.
It is easy, from the outside, to be cynical about the ‘westerner’ being transformed by his fascination with the ‘East’. People ‘finding themselves’. I think of Julia Roberts in the unbearably vacuous Eat Pray Love. Spoiled selfish woman goes bindi and spiritual. A few garlands of saffron coloured flowers. Some people base their whole ‘new identity’ on a bit of hemp and souvenir shop Buddhas – it can get tacky. I have a good childhood friend who once got waylaid by an Indian cult for many years, but then luckily found her way out again, not that I think she regrets the experience in its entirety, as she learned a great deal from it; trinkets aside, learning and developing is ultimately for me what it is all about. There can be no doubt, also, that the fact I have lived precisely half my life in each cultural sphere – 25 years in both, and you can’t really get much more ‘eastern’ than Japan – has had a profound impact on my thinking and philosophy as a whole on life as well. In my case, I had to feel other ways of being: I can never, ever just accept one set of rules. What I have learned personally is that The East is powerful, but then so is the West. The intense fascination works both ways – Japan, like many Asian cultures, has long been mesmerized by the Occident, even if it cherrypicks what it absorbs into its own culture and rejects the rest. Precisely what I do myself with any culture. You learn from both, but see the faults. Extreme egotism in the west vs the apparent virtual obliteration of it here : it rends the soul trying to get to the truth of it all, which realities are ‘realer’ or feel more truthful to you as a person. Daily life, rituals, customs, all gets questioned and analysed – it frees you from a certain calcification of the mental arteries. English weddings, for instance, to take just one example, are far more fun and spontaneous for me than the ultra scripted, fake-Christian-chapel white dressed kekkonshiki that are planned and rehearsed to a microsecond and presented by a professional ‘MC’ who usually doesn’t even know the couple, blessed by a ‘priest’ who could be anyone (I have two friends in the underground cabaret and poetry scene who double as priests as well-paid weekend part time jobs; two hour jam-packed breathy events that to me feel just like being on a TV show (traditional Japanese weddings are different, more solemn and affecting, although most couples these days opt for the former style). Me and D, when invited, are usually just screaming to get out of them, as, the complete lack of spontaneity and the veneer of showroom commercialism – and the de rigeur, overly rich and heavy French cuisine which always has D running furtively to the bathroom, to me is not the ideal expression of love. The weddings I have been to in England begin with the ceremony (even if they are not Christian, the vows have usually been exchanged at least in a real church, with an ordained minister standing in front of the crucifix – in Japan it is just an empty decoration, a prop). Then, when the drink gets flowing, it gets more chaotic, the day gradually flows into evening, everyone dancing, and it starts to really feel like a celebration. In Japan, people don’t dance.
In contrast, I think British funerals – at least the Church Of England ones I have been to – feel insufficient; lack closure, the sense of a full taking stock of a person. A thirty minute time slot, with few or no personalized touches, no readings, another family waiting outside for their turn out in the car park, a quick cremation, with words from a religious person that don’t seem to fit the person in question, (who was not usually religious anyway), it can often seem just a rushed, a grim formality, a whole life processed in such a short time that to me it has almost felt like something of an insult. A crummy ending. I believe that people deserve more. In Japan, funerals are Buddhist; the deceased is never left alone; there is a wake immediately with flowers and monks chanting and incense constantly burning as the sutras help the spirit go on to the next life, and then the cremation ceremony, and the careful placing of the cremated bones – picked solemnly and carefully by close relatives with chopsticks and placed in the urn – as well as ceremonies held once every seven days for the next 49 days until the spirit is safely in the next world. I have always found it more respectful and appropriate. A proper send off.
Quite how I would feel, though, if I were by the Ganges, watching dead bodies float by, seeing the pyres burning with the recently passed, I don’t know. That would be a new step in a whole different direction. I might be transfixed, or horrified, I can’t say. Both. Fascinated, certainly. I could not watch a person self-immolate : but the Sati law was thankfully passed in India in 1987, meaning that the practice of suttee, whereby widows would sometimes climb atop the structure to burn with their husbands while still alive is no longer permitted. Whatever the cultural or religious origins, that would have been too traumatizing.
A writer for National Geographic, Pete McBride, in 2014 documented his feelings on being present at the ghat on the Ganges, where people had gathered to say farewell to their relatives :
“When you step off a wooden boat onto the banks of the burning ghat in the oldest of India’s cities and you weave through a maze of funeral pyres hissing, steaming, and spitting orange embers into an inky night and you feel the metronome clang bells vibrating inside your chest and a wave of furnace-like heat consuming everything in its reach, you realise how removed you truly are from the ritual of death. I’ve lost my fair share of friends and family. I don’t feel sheltered from the bony hand of death. But when I stepped on Varanasi’s famous cremation ghat, which runs 24/7, burning hundreds of bodies a day in plain sight, it dawned on me how physically distant most of use are from the departed. In the west, the dead are typically hidden away either to be beautified for a funeral or be cremated, depending on beliefs. Either way, bodies are rarely seen again. Some might argue it is civilised, clean, or perhaps just emotionally easier. Or maybe it is the modern world’s subtle way of hiding from the inevitable…
Funeral practices vary worldwide. Of those I ‘ve witnessed, few are as transparent and raw as the Hindu ritual on the banks of the Ganges River. The belief is that if a deceased’s ashes are laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. In a culture that believes in reincarnation, this concept, called moksha, is profound.
“…….At 4:30am the next morning, we returned. A blood red sun was rising across the river. Only one pyre was burning. The bells had stopped. Smoke was everywhere as workers meticulously collected human ash and bone fragments to dump into the river. Goats and dogs roamed freely and steam rose from the ground…. As I photographed, a teenage boy started shadowing me. After a few minutes he asked, ‘want to see my auntie?’ I looked at him confused. He explained that his family was about to cremate his aunt. I looked down on the lower burning deck, and saw the boy’s relatives surrounding a body draped in flowers, saying goodbye and offering final prayers. The boy proudly listed off the oils, herbs, flowers, and trinkets, that they brought to help his aunt on her journey. There was something beautiful about the process unfold before me – the rawness, the simplicity, the completeness.”
Varanasi, the perfume, is the first chapter in Meo Fusciuni’s “Timeless Trilogy”. And it does, I believe, capture something religious; human. I would agree with him that the ‘perfume has no compromises’: it tells what India left in his ‘mind, heart and soul’, a ‘visceral expression.’ I could not wear this myself on a regular basis myself – it is too……grave (while joyful); intense, though I did enjoy experiencing it all day on Sunday, quietly at home. It arouses something in me. I find it perturbing, serene and compelling all at the same time; and I look forward to experiencing the next chapter.