“Are you Hindu?” I asked.
Sonu nodded and touched the fading red loop of cloth around his right wrist.
“This means I am Hindu,” he said, before snaking his hips to one side, avoiding an oncoming motorbike carrying a couple of lazy eyed, local lads. Undeterred, we continued to wind our way through the labyrinthine alleys of Varanasi, the reputed ‘spiritual capital of India’.
As I was devouring William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns at the time, and its tales of Partition, I continued: “And there are no problems with the Muslims here?”
It didn’t feel particularly holy. Blind puppies stumbled drunkenly into puddles muddled with bovine faeces, street food and silt. A permanent fog hung over the water and crept up its banks, like a wet cloak of dirty air, invading space, breath and body. It stuck to my hair and got into my nostrils, this hallowed haze of Varanasi.
The view from the river, at dawn in our hired rowing boat, was equally incongruous with Varanasi’s reputation as the place that without which any Indian pilgrimage is merely a holiday. Our 1.5 hour round trip - labelled ‘the ideal way to view Varanasi’, the architecture of the Ghats and body burning of traditional Hindu funerals - was cold, dark and filled with detritus. Where others saw prayer offerings, we saw litter and a chance to rip off tourists. And for many, the sight of Hindu men cleansing themselves in the water was humbling. We could think only of decomposing bodies, the rubbish and sewage.
After some alone time at the hotel, I wandered upstairs to meet the others. “We’re waiting for the plane” said my brother, anxiously perched on a bench in our parents’ room, like a tit on a branch, attempting to minimise contact between himself and the seat.
We weren’t due to fly for another 10 hours.
We peered out of the window, into the gloom. At least the laundry had arrived back, I thought, noticing a neatly folded pile on top of the table before us.
And then I remembered: The white rectangles I’d spied from the boat; bed sheets laid out to dry on the concrete; the rows of jeans hanging on a single clothes line, like an army of Levi’s; the couple of tired locals soaking T-shirts in the water and bashing the dirt out on the bank…
This was holy laundry.
Turning to my family, the looks on their faces confirming my fears, we reached for our salvation. One tall, one deep red in colour, our bottles of baneful drink sat patiently waiting.
We each sank a vodka and red wine and awaited redemption.