I Remember the Silence

I’m having difficulty sleeping… a bit because of the Boston attacks… a bit because they dredged up memories… I feel for the people in Boston. Their journey is only just beginning… and it’s going to take a really long time to heal.

Way back in 1997, I spent a fair bit of time in Varanasi… the City of Light. This is the holiest of Hindu cities and also the place where many go to die. The experience was life-changing and I still get a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. Varanasi is where to go if you want to stare at death.

On the day that I arrived, there was a student protest. I can’t remember the details but I do remember that police used explosives on the crowds and several students were killed. Because Varanasi was the holiest of cities, this is where the bodies were brought for cremation. And, when the bodies were exposed, people saw the brutality of the attack (body pieces were mangled or missing). People were outraged and became extremely violent.

During the cremation (I assume), I was walking with a friend outside the old city when we suddenly heard gunfire and a series of explosions. We felt the explosions. And, then towards us came a wave of dust and people trying to run away. I remember Micha screaming “run” and turning to run with the crowd away from what was coming. There were so many people and I remember not being able to go very fast. Micha and I were separated.

This is when a man grabbed me and pulled me into his shop with his family — his wife and two little girls. The man then pulled the metal door down and cut us off from the running and screaming and noise from outside. It was evening and there were no lights; I assumed because the power was out.

This is the part that I remember vividly. It was dark and after a while became silent. I could hear the little girls periodically struggling to hold their fear in. It became stifling hot and smelled of shoe leather and musty fabric. There was nothing around me except dark and my ringing ears. I felt like I was floating in nothingness and began to wonder if I’d died; I kept telling myself that my ears wouldn’t be ringing if I’d died. I floated for what seemed like forever when there was sudden pounding on the roll-down door. No one moved and the pounding became more persistent.

The family started to talk rapidly in a language that I couldn’t identify while the banging continued. The door rolled up halfway and with it came to light. The two little girls started to cry. I was terrified of what was coming next, but it was Micha’s head and arm that came in to pull me out. I later felt regret that I didn’t get to thank the family for hiding me.

The streets were startlingly empty as we ran to Old Varanasi. Once inside the walls, we found a group of tourists in a restaurant that we frequented. Everyone was completely oblivious to what was happening outside of the cloistered walls of the old city. Micha and I sat silent, unnoticed and shocked beside them while they told stupid stories about unimportant things. I remember looking around and noticing that the monkeys that tormented us daily had vanished; I took this as a sign and decided to disappear too.

The next day, life continued as if nothing had happened. No one talked about the previous evening. This is when I came to realize that these experiences are a part of the fabric of many people’s lives. People live like this. People die like this. People ultimately become numb to it as they try to cope. This last bit is especially concerning because pain leads to action… and when you are numb, you are incapable of doing anything but moving from day-to-day. People who are numb become silent and nothing good ever comes from silence.

Again, my heart goes out to everyone in Boston and the rest of the world who is suffering because of violence. It’s wrong and we can’t let ourselves become numb. We can’t become silent.

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