BY JOV ALMERO
Santosh, one of the hostel staff, said the slow Wi-Fi was caused by last night’s monsoon rain. I didn’t believe him. This is the same Santosh who freely talked about his anti-consumerist sentiment only to later take me to a silk shop where he and the hawker made me feel bad about refusing to buy a 1200 rupee silk scarf for my mother. I was not traveling to gather. This, Santosh could not understand.
When Santosh and I arrived at the hostel after an afternoon of walking around Varanasi, I badly needed to take a leak. But when I entered my room, I received a text message from my boss all the way from Manila. He was asking for a high-res copy of the logo I had designed for a new client, ASAP. I had sent him this high-res copy twice. Sometimes I suspect my boss cheated his way through natural selection and has perfected the art of camouflage.
I waived my bladder duties, went out with my laptop, and scavenged through the maze-like lanes of the old city for a café that advertised free and reliable Wi-Fi. I found one on the alley that led to Munshi Ghat. Its open doors were guarded by a beggar who chewed betel nut and who ordained me into gurudom upon receiving five rupees from my pocket.
As I walked into the cafe, I saw this girl. Her eyes were big and green and her hair was blonde and stringy and she was bathed in the kind of halo I had long dismissed as pure fancy. She was drinking lassi. She was also looking at me, or at least, my laptop.
I took a seat at the table next to her.
“Can I borrow your laptop?” She asked.
Her accent, probably Nordic, most definitely heavenly, was like the sound of Sitar strings strummed frantically. She called herself Faith.
She had been traveling through Asia for a year and had been gallivanting across the Indian subcontinent for three months. At one point, she had had to sell her laptop to pay for an emergency expense and extend her travel.
Had she asked for my heart so she could have it curried right then and there, eat it with chapati, and wash it down with chai, I would have yielded. But all she asked for was my laptop and I thought she was hella selfless.
I gave her my laptop.
After using my laptop to email back home, upload an entire album from her camera to her Facebook, and stalk an ex-boyfriend on Twitter, and after I had consumed two glasses of lemon lassi and had totally forgotten about my bladder, my boss and his high-res logo, Faith asked if I had already done the sunset cruise on the Ganges and if I had already watched the Ganga Aarti. I said no and that I had just arrived that morning. She asked if I would like to do those things with her. I was ready to do all kinds of things with her and for her so I nodded like one of those toy puppies with bobbing heads on cab dashboards back in Manila.
I left my phone and laptop back at the hostel. Faith and I went down the Kedar Ghat where the boats were docked. I paid for the river cruise; 1000 rupees for two. We hopped on a boat we shared with at least 20 Hindu pilgrims.
She asked what my religion was. I said I was a non-practicing Roman Catholic. She said she was, in the depths of her heart, Hindu. This, despite how she would never dare touch the Ganges.
On the boat, passing by the olden Ghats of Varanasi, passing by dead bodies being burned ceremoniously with the ashes later to be thrown into the river, passing by floating carcasses of sacred cows, passing by scrawny kids frolicking in the holy waters of the Ganges, I could barely keep my eyes off Faith; gap-toothed and freckled Faith, tattooed and mosquito-bitten Faith.
She could barely keep her eyes off the river.
The cruise culminated along the Dashashwamedh Ghat which was already packed with pilgrims and travelers alike, either on boats or on the steps of the Ghat. The Ganga Aarti was just about to start. It was a Hindu fire ritual done every day during sunset, in honor of the Goddess Ganga. A rather mystical and fascinating affair I would have appreciated had it not been for the sudden reminder of my impertinent and thus far forgotten bladder that it was just about ready to break loose and sabotage my impending romance.
We were all standing on the boat while five priests in silky garments performed the Ganga Aarti. The priests and the pilgrims chanted in Hindi. Even Faith had her arms stretched out to the Ganges, chanting something only she knew. I too tried to participate in the ceremony by humming Kula Shaker’s Govinda.
Govinda Jaya Jaya
Gopala Jaya Jaya
Govinda Jaya Jaya
I didn’t know what those words meant. I was humming the song partly to distract myself from my bladder, partly to impress Faith. Only both attempts were proving futile.
My bladder could not hold it any longer and Faith seemed lost in a trance she had probably forgotten about me entirely.
For the first time in years I prayed. I prayed to the God I was born into and to the saints whose names I had had to memorize as a child. I prayed to the Goddess Ganga. Heck I even prayed to Cupid.
Please don’t let my bladder burst.
Please let Faith notice my spirituality.
A deafening thunder broke open the doors of the heavens and sent its sentinels weeping out a torrent of monsoon rain that easily drenched all the pilgrims and the travelers and all the priests and the beggars and all the kids and the lovers.
My bladder, too, broke.
A torrent of piss cascaded down my pants, all the way to my shoes, and onto the wobbly wooden floor of the boat where it mixed with the piss of the heavens.
Faith, still chanting with her eyes closed to the realm of the physical, her arms raised to high heavens, her unshaved armpits soaked from the water dripping down her limbs, was completely oblivious to what had just happened in my pants.
When she opened her eyes, I had yet to recover from having been betrayed by my bladder and my prayer. She must have thought my expression was that of immense spiritual immersion that her eyes welled up and she inched closer to me, ready to wrap her arms around my body.
Afraid that she’d smell the pee in my pants, I jumped off the boat, and into the holy river.
The sun had completely set and the rain had abated and the smell of incense wafted through the air. I was wading in the greasy waters of the Ganges pretending to purify my soul. From the boat, alongside the Hindu pilgrims, Faith stared at me with her mouth wide open and with her hands just about ready to cover her mouth.
Her big green eyes were full of love.
This is what I chose to believe.
They were full of love.
Jov Almero is taking his MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. His stories have appeared on Kritika Kultura, Plural: Online Prose Journal, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.