VARANASI, India—A conman was leading me through the streets of Varanasi. I was fully aware of this, and I was letting it happen.
The conman had helped my friend acquire Ayurvedic medicine, legendary Varanasi silks, and pungent scents from a local apothecary. Pretending to help my friend haggle for the local price, the conman had actually taken a hefty commission on each sale. My friend eventually figured out the scheme, but at this point the damage was done with hundreds of U.S. dollars sunk on specialty goods from India’s holiest city. Maybe the guy was a conman, but he was our conman. Now we were reaping our reward by making him show us Varanasi’s famed Hanuman monkey temple.
Following the conman through buzzing streets on the way to the temple, we passed bare-butted children squatting to defecate out in the open and rats slithering along the curb. A headache-inducing chorus of auto-rickshaw honks was our soundtrack until we finally paused at an inelegant gate off the main road. Nothing here suggested that we had reached a notable place aside from a non-functioning security scanner and a woman who insisted on “checking my bag,” which is code for rummaging through my stuff to see what Americans actually bring with them when they visit sacred temples. She seems satisfied (CVS hand sanitizer never fails) and lets me pass.
As we stepped through the security scanner my friend pulled out a pack of biscuits and handed them to me (“Wouldn’t it be sweet if we could feed them to the baby monkeys?”) We were framed. Immediately the monkeys descended, swarms and stampedes of monkeys from a hundred yards away came barreling towards us; running full-speed, thrashing, ripping, tearing my scarf from my neck. Hitchcock’s The Birds could have taken its inspiration from this sort of full-frontal monkey attack. I screamed, threw the biscuits as far as I could, and sprinted in the opposite direction.
Finally the monkey onslaught subsided and I returned biscuitless for another attempt at entering the temple. I removed my shoes, tapped my hand on the floor and touched it to my forehead. I crossed the temple to glimpse the orange face of the Hanuman. His image seemed modern and stark like the faces of tragedy and comedy, indecisive with its smile. I gazed into the circular holes that resembled his eyes and applied red kumkum powder to my forehead. Like all monkeys, Hanuman was mischievous, cunning, and just a bit too human.