“You’re a Banarasi when a bull runs into you,” I tell Jeremy “Jai” Oltmann. We’re swapping secret handshakes that people say prove that you belong in Varanasi.
“If Shiva likes you, you stay,” he counters.
Oltmann is the founder of one of the city’s best-known walking tour companies, Varanasi Walks. “I’ve lived in Banaras for 14 years, and I’m still a foreigner,” he says, although his relentless rooting through the city has made him a storehouse of the city’s secret finds and peculiarities. Eloquent and easy-going, the 42-year-old seems as paradoxical as the city he inhabits, at once American and Indian, Hindu and Christian. He is a keen observer of the often contradictory Banarasi personality: as quick to utter a curse as a joke, devout but also capable of blasphemy – anything is acceptable as long as “you say it with grace or humour or poetry,” Oltmann comments.
When Oltmann arrived in India in 1997 with waist-length dreadlocks and a pierced tongue, he was a 25-year-old Christian who abstained from drugs, alcohol and sex; one of 12 social workers who’d arrived from the US to serve at a drug rehab centre in Delhi. Fast-forward 18 years, and Oltmann is a long-time resident of India’s holiest city, wandering peacefully through the lanes of Shiva’s city. He’s dubbed himself “Jai” – the first part of his name that is also the Hindi word for victory – because “people keep wrecking my name:Jairemy, Mr German, Mr Joy”. His hair now just about grazes his collar and his Hindi has the twang of a local.
It was learning the national language that served as his key to Varanasi. During his yearlong study of Hindi at Mussoorie’s Landor Language School, Oltmann met a doctor who mentored him in “understanding the Hindu worldview”, taking him to the Kumbh Mela and sacred Hindu sites. Guided by the doctor, Oltmann came to Varanasi to create and run a Hindu studies programme for a Christian university in the US, to give foreign students the introduction to India that he wished he had. Over the next 10 years, he found himself exploring Varanasi’s layers while helping students navigate the city for their projects on its wrestlers, musicians and spiritual figures. Oltmann went from taking students and acquaintances on walks to starting his tour company in 2008, along the way earning degrees from the Indira Gandhi National Open University, fathering two kids from a marriage to an Indian, and fostering employees who often went on to run their own walks.
Oltmann clarifies that he isn’t “the typical foreigner who has come and been changed, in terms of this hyper-Vedic-Brahminical section of the community here”. He consumes alcohol and meat, and remains a member of the Lutheran Church, except that his philosophy has been suffused with Tantra. “Now everything is Shiva and everybody is a walking skeleton and there is no caste and there is no male or female,” he says, “I actually believe Banaras is like a living being that has grown throughout the ages and it’s become like a guru to me.” In fact, to deter him from forgetting his roots, his friends gifted him the tattoo on his leg, emblazoned with the name of his neighbourhood in Minneapolis, “the hometown of Bob Dylan and Prince” and still his “favourite place in the world”.
One of his stories to help understand Varanasi has to do with the way he was welcomed to the city. “When I first met my landlord, he said, “You’re Christian – missionary or social worker?’ I said, ‘Educator.’ He said, ‘No, missionary or social worker?’ Those were his two categories. And I said, ‘Uncle, when Hanuman holds open his chest, who’s inside?’ He said, ‘Ram and Sita.’ I said, ‘When you pull open my chest, Jesus is inside.’ He said, ‘Very good, I rent you my house.’ This is what I learned from Banaras: if you don’t know how to answer a question, all you do is tell Hindu stories and make a bridge over to your own life, and then everything is fine. Some might say, ‘But that doesn’t answer the question.’ This is correct, now you’ve understood Banaras.” Oltmann figured that his landlord’s roundabout questioning wasn’t really about what he did but whether his religious interests lay in conversion: “So I showed him that I like the stories from his scriptures. Because in the end, to the Banarasi, it doesn’t matter if it’s Jesus or Shiva or anything, you should just remember God.”
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