This gentleman, quite thin, with a slightly tired face but still with a very energetic temperament, is called Das. This morning we heard him singing a raga – an ancient, improvised melody typical of India. It was like he was singing to get our attention because when we approached him, he didn’t seem surprised at all. He was sitting in an old armchair in a room of an equally old, colonial-style mansion converted into a hotel. His voice filled every inch of the building. A former manager of a construction company, today Das is on vacation with his family. Now, to approach and create conversation with people I follow a fairly fixed strategy. I start by talking a little bit about myself and the reasons that brought me to the Ganges. When I have built a little confidence, I let them talk. I ask Das what he thinks about the problem of pollution in the Ganges. He answers: ‘You see, the problem is that the Hindu worships God expecting this very act of faith can secure heaven for him but apart from that, he does nothing. He doesn’t care about anything – either about other people or about the place where he lives. Nothing. It’s a very individualistic existence. He might take care of what is inside his home but he has no interest whatsoever for what is outside.’
Then Das says something that I have to ask him to repeat because it catches me so unprepared that at first I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. He realises this immediately, settles back in his chair, plants his elbows on knees and make a determined statement: ‘I don’t believe in God, the only thing I believe in is that it’s just me with my own actions which can buy me a place in heaven. I can’t wait for God to come and save me, I have to save myself through daily actions.’
For the first time, I have the feeling of talking to a man who, having lived for so long without seeing any change, has lost hope about the future – that everything will settle down – which is typical of the many Indians I’ve met so far.
‘What future is there for India if it is still believed that the Ganges can repair all our sins and misdeeds, without doing anything? You have seen it yourself visiting the towns and villages along the Ganges’ he says to me. ‘There are many uneducated people who, because of this, do not have a job. Without a job, they have no future. What they are left with is to join their hands as a bowl and pour the water of the Ganges on their foreheads.’
I begin to understand the real meaning of his words because I saw it with my own eyes. On my way, I have met kids and adults from under-privileged backgrounds who felt disconnected from anything beyond what their eyes could see. After hearing me say I was travelling to Kolkata on my raft, their statement was always ‘Kolkata is far away.’ And if Kolkata is far away, how far must these people feel from a better future, from understanding the universe, the laws that rule the natural world?
I listen in silence. I think Das still wants to say something but a child of about four appears from a door behind him. He tells me she is his niece and I take the opportunity to ask him what he wishes for her future. ‘I wish her a good education because only with that can she secure a future.’
The conversation has absorbed me completely, but now I am distracted by loud music coming from the street. It must be one of those bluetooth speakers which Indians are crazy about. It is a wake-up call that brings me back to the present and reminds me today is Holi Festival, held throughout India. The fun is basically to get as dirty as possible using coloured powders, in order to celebrate Spring and the victory of good over evil.
However strongly contrasted, these two experiences of the day represent perhaps the best condition that can ever be achieved for a human being – the balance between inside and outside, between spirit and fun. Maybe I have to work a little bit on the outside, because I can’t appreciate the festival as much as many people seem to.