(My review of Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede. It appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 24 April, 2015.)
The living and the dead of Varanasi have long enticed Western travelers, especially those fond of ‘Eastern spirituality’. Among them is British writer Piers Moore Ede, who, after many short visits, recently spent a year in this ancient city in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. From a Spartan flat overlooking the Ganga, he forayed into other parts of Varanasi, always ‘grateful for return to the familiarity and lyricism of the river bank’. Kaleidoscope City, an account of his experiences, brims with warmth, humility, and curiosity.
Moore Ede covers a fair bit of ground. He marvels at folk theater performances of The Ramayana. He probes the life and beliefs of an Aghori ascetic, among the most austere of holy men. He meets the city’s legendary master silk weavers, almost all Muslim, who still weave exquisite designs on manual looms inside their homes. Sampling Varanasi’s foods, he fondly delves into the locals’ love of sweets. He learns about the city’s great musical heritage, discovering that Muslims often ‘worked as professional musicians in Hindu temples’. He uncovers sad stories too: a prostitute and victim of a sex trafficking ring; white-robed widows who, often discarded by their families, come to die in Varanasi; textile workers fallen on hard times in the age of globalization.
As a Westerner in Varanasi, Moore Ede inhabits a privileged world, which both enables and limits him. If people sometimes trust him for being an empathetic outsider without a threatening stake in their lives, he admits he can often only see ‘the facade rather than the finer details, and cannot decipher the inner meaning of things.’ This is partly the lot of all outsiders, for whom encounters can be superficial and realities invisible. Moore Ede seems oblivious to the range of crookedness in the holy men he meets. At times, he is too uncritical, more like a fellow believer than a journalist. His yoga-studio Hinduism seems untouched by dissident voices—of the Buddha, Nagarjuna, or Ambedkar, say. Like many before him, he is prone to reducing the varieties of secular and religious life in pre-modern India to stereotypes. He writes, for example, that ‘At the heart of India’s change lies an unmistakable shift away from moksha as the central goal of life, towards that of material prosperity.’ Witnessing the disruptive juggernaut of modernity, he comes close to romanticizing the vanishing traditions of village life.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Kaleidoscope City are the author’s respectful encounters with people and his sensitive exposition of several Varanasi traditions. Interwoven are many lovely impressions of the fleeting and the quirky. The rhythms of life and death by the river are vividly rendered in Moore Ede’s fluid prose.