Waiting to Die – Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
“You want to see the bodies? Madame, you want to see the fires?”
Achi, I replied because I thought that meant “maybe”. Now I don’t think it means anything, literally. It doesn’t translate into anything. I guess it really says “I’m a clueless white girl muttering a meaningless phrase that sounds similar to good in Hindi which is acha. I still say acha a lot. People seemed to like it. Or, they liked white women. The non-literal translation of acha is “please take a moment to admire my breasts”. Perhaps they thought I was saying, “I am white and therefore love seducing Indian men, please brush my ass as you pass.”
“Come, I show you. No money.”
“No money,” I repeated firmly.
“No money.” he insisted.
No money? Really? I had at least been around long enough to be skeptical of any free offers. Especially here, where spirituality is for sale on every corner and the white people are hot to buy it. Maybe he sensed some vague spiritual connection with me. I did have my head shaved to the skin, Indian straight razored to be exact. I felt it gave me some strange street credibility. I must be deeply spiritual or else totally insane to throw away my feminine features so callously. Having your head shaved makes you look like you’re good at things, or that you have balls, which deserve a certain amount of respect.
I said again what I think means “maybe” and he heard “good”. He started to walk, motioning for me to follow, and for some reason, I decided to follow him down a dark winding alley. At home I probably would not have done this, but I didn’t mind leaving the bustle of the main streets of Varanasi, overcrowded with hoards of cycle rickshaws and cows. Plus, he was really old and about a foot shorter than me. I figured I could take him. He had big haunting eyes, like so many Indians, and wore a slightly tattered button down and similarly worn brown pants and flip-flops. His hair and bushy mustache were gray. I hiked my flowing skirt a bit and followed him as he deftly dodged the massive piles of cow shit. I almost lost him while I stopped to watch the monkeys leap through a tangle of wires from a tattered overhang to another rooftop. The children we passed playing in the alley stopped their games to stare in half suspicion, half delight at my strange white face.
A group of men turned a corner carrying a body over their heads on a bamboo stretcher with a bright red and gold cloth draped over it. They swept past me as I clung with my back to the stone wall, and were gone in an instant before I could absorb the feeling of being in the presence of a dead body. I stared, slack jawed, and the group of men who happened to be lazily staring at me chuckled at my shock.
“Body,” my little old man commented with a slight smile and a head tilt. Life and death coexist more happily here than in the west. There is no one to keep the dead away from the living, or the shit away from the food.
Wandering through the lanes, the stone buildings were browns, whites, grays, but also warm yellows, dusty pinks, and cool blues. Most were plain and boxy, but an occasional one had ornate arches and detailed decorative roofs, left over from the glory days of the raj. They were usually two or three stories and all sloppily connected. The ground was also roughly connected and strewn with random steps and holes. The narrow little streets twisted sharply revealing a tiny Hindu shrine, or a vendor tucked – a hole in the wall. Some had giant scales for weighing something unseen; others had huge smoldering cauldrons. Still others had beautiful silks floating into the alley on the hot breeze, others tiny Ganeshes or wooden toys. Some called to me, “Madame! Have a loook! Looking is free!” All stared as I passed.
Inside the little shrines, idols wore their orange marigold garlands in various stages of decay, and the incense snaked into the alley, filling it with an eerie haze and a potent smell. Wading through the thick hot air of the holiest city of Hinduism was like a weird dream. You start to feel the spirits you never thought you believed in. Gradually the incense faded into the familiar sticky stench of cow shit, which was replaced by the smell of a different smoke. It drifted from the river and enveloped us as we ambled toward the source of the smoke.
“Da bodies. Looook,” he pointed.
There they were. Bodies, maybe seven or eight, burned on little piles of wood and their smoke filled the air. They burned all day and night, “all the time burning,” my guide explained with a head wobble. We emerged from the maze of alleys on to the ghats. All along the Ganges, the holiest river in India, where the water is fabled to have come from the feet of Shiva, are exotic cone shaped temples and steps leading down into the water. Some are bright pinks and yellows. This is Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat. Here all the temples are dark and loom menacingly over the river. The smoke is overpowering and made my eyes burn behind my oversized sunglasses.
“Dis way, Madame” beckoned my guide, my last connection to the world I had known before stepping back into what seemed to me like Biblical times. The dusty scene reminded me of the illustrations from The Bible In Pictures for Little Eyes that had mesmerized me during long hours of church as a child. If I was stuck in a time warp, this guy might be my only way back out.
He led me towards a larger concrete building lined with stacks of different kinds of wood used for the burnings. We crept up a dark flight of steps and came out in a big, open concrete area with a roof, like a covered porch. It looked out onto the river and was totally empty except for the old women on the floor.
“They wait to die,” he commented nonchalantly.
They looked just like I would have expected someone waiting to die to resemble – scraggily gray hair, emaciated, draped in faded robes. One woman reached out and clutched my hand. Her robe was so loose, I could see her sagging breasts and prominent ribs. There was almost nothing left of her, but giant sad eyes. They crouched on the floor watching with a powerful stillness what would be their fate in a matter of days, maybe weeks. She didn’t say anything, just squeezed my hand with her bony fingers. She was begging for money, to buy enough wood for her body to be burned. I squeezed her hand back and put some rupees in it. We both returned our gaze to the bodies that she would soon be joining.
I kept thinking about my great grandmother, Mabel, in her Alabama nursing home. Her left leg was amputated and a machine did her breathing for her. Although she got to watch The Price is Right at an unreasonable volume while she waited to die, she wouldn’t have had to wait nearly so long in India. Instead of the concrete floor, she had an adjustable bed and was carefully monitored. Everything is kept wrapped and sterile. The walls are a crisp stark white. Death is denied for as long as possible. It’s well concealed and carefully wrapped when it does arrive.
“Loook. A child.” said my guide. “They do not burn. Too pure.”
He would later be weighted down and sunk in the river from a boat. The same would happen to pregnant women and holy men.
The old lady and I watched silently as a young boy was dipped into the river strapped to his bamboo stretcher. The thin gold cloth clung to his body and face, revealing the sallow outline of his cheeks. I drew in my breath sharply, as the cloth was gently pulled away from his face. It looked like a doll’s face, perfectly formed, stiff and pale. The men of his family gathered around him and poured holy water into his lifeless mouth with small clay bowls. The women don’t come to burn the bodies. “They make too much cry,” explained my old man.
At another pyre a body had just finished burning and the men closed the ritual by dousing holy water over the ashes. They formed a motley assembly line from the river to the body as they passed a clay pot from one to the other, filling and emptying it several times. A frail little old man stood closest to the pyres and dutifully poured the water onto the body. He was dressed in white robes and had his head shaved as a sign of mourning. He must have been the husband, father or brother of the deceased.
As is the custom, for the final pot of water, he turned away from the body and threw the pot over his shoulder so that it shattered into many pieces. The pieces of clay, the ashes and the holy water all lay together. He lurched forward as if it took all his strength to push the pot from off his sunken shoulder and onto his beloved. The other men took both his arms and helped him stand. Very slowly, he walked away without turning back.
It occurred to me that the sound of the pot shattering was the first sound I had been aware of for a while. I had been so immersed in the sights and the smoke that the loud breaking of the pot woke me from a dream. It reminded me that everything I was watching was real, happening right before me. Hot tears streamed down my cheeks and mixed with the salty sweat covering my face and body.
I felt like I was tripping, as though the place was ripping through me while I sat motionless letting its power consume me. The incredible beauty and awful hideousness of life and death, totally raw, washed over me – sickening and gorgeous. In the same vista, smoke billowed up from charred bodies and just beyond it, little boys in their underwear playfully jumped off ledges into the river, splashing and squealing with delight. Steps away from the mourning families, several beggars stood knee deep in the water and panned for gold from the fresh ashes. They quietly scavenged for bits of riches – gold teeth, nose rings, maybe a toe ring. No one seemed to notice or mind.
Those bathing intermixed with the ritual bathing saddles, the frolicking boys, and the cows, calmly cooling off in the brown murky water. The women, fully dressed, waded down the steps and into the murky water, gossiping with their bright saris clinging to them. The men, however, stripped down. I got caught staring at one having his morning bath. He made direct, awkward eye contact as he vigorously lathered up his ass with both hands beneath his loose underwear. I jerked my head to the next image, a little boy scurrying towards us with a kettle roughly as large as he was.
In India, I happily replaced my coffee addiction with chai and was excited to hear a man yelling,
“Chaichaichai! Chaichaichaichai! Chai, Madame?”
Even in the stifling heat, I loved the sweet, milky hot tea. I bought a three-rupee cup for myself, one for my guide and another for my old woman waiting to die. My guide grinned at me, poured from his giant kettle, and hurried off leaving us with the delicate clay cups. I had the cup in both hands and closed my eyes, letting the sweet steam cover my face and the smell of black tea replace the smell of burning bodies. My old woman nodded once slowly in acknowledgement and we sipped together, still watching the parade of life and death pass before us.
It was the best chai I’d ever had. I didn’t know what to do with the little clay cup when I was done. Should I take it back to the boy so he could use it again? Or should I give it to the old woman? She didn’t seem to have a lot of possessions. I handed it to her warmly, if a little confused. She took it from my hand and threw it onto the ground, where it shattered. Her thin lips spread into a wide toothless grin as its sound broke the silence and woke us both up inside.