Monday, 27 February 2012

Varanasi: Death, Life and the Whole Damn Hoopla

Two minutes into my first walk along the ghats a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed man stopped in front of me smiling and said: "Gokarna.  Kudle Beach? You were always dancing on the beach at sunset."

"Yes.  Yes, I said.

We hadn't actually met, but had been there at the same time, and seen each other. And that made us part of a family. So it came to be that I spent the day with the very sweet and lovely Frederico from Rome.

"Yesterday I went to the burning ghat," he said, "and I didn't know what to think.  I saw a dog chewing on a human arm.  It was so strange and upsetting."

We were now at the "Burning Ghat. Smoke was billowing our way.  Women grabbed their saris and held the fabric over their nose and mouths.  We walked past piles of logs, discarded marigold flowers; we side-stepped piles of cow and buffalo shit and stepped up onto the landing just above the funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges.
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The air is thick with smoke.  Piles of smoldering logs cave in on themselves.  Men douse them with water from the river. Joss sticks send trails of incense  that merge with the smoke of the cremation fires.  The air reeks of cow and buffalo piss, incense, marigolds and roses.

One woman draped in a pale pink sheet lies on a bed of logs waiting for cremation.  Another woman covered in bright orange and gold wrapping, garlands of marigolds trailing over her body, rests on a palanquin by the edge of the Ganges.  Four men grab each of the poles and submerge her for the final ritual dip in the purifying water of the Holy River then pull her out. It's believed that being dipped into the holy waters of the Ganges after death brings deliverance from Moksha, the cycle of reincarnation.
One man takes her by the shoulders while another man lifts her by her feet and place her upon the pile of logs. The ornate orange and gold wrapper is removed and she lies in a green and red sari upon her funeral pyre.

The attendants adjust her body, pulling her head more center, her feet closer together; pushing an arm up against her side, pulling her torso a little more toward the middle of the pyre.

These are dead bodies that are being lifted and shifted and prodded in place over those logs.  Those women were once mothers and wives, someone's friends and confidants.  Now they're dead and about to evaporate into smoke and ash and gristle. 

Meanwhile two men with shaved heads (usually the eldest male child) walk into the Ganges and anoint themselves with the water, then wrap clean dhotis around their waists.  They are each handed a burning bundle of long twigs.  They circle the body of their loved one and when the flames get too close to their hands, a new bundle is thrust into their hands and exchanged for the burnt one.  Seven times they circle the body and finally lay a fresh bundle of burning twigs in the space between the bottom logs under the dead women.

A huge pile of logs is stacked under and on top of  the red and green saried women.  Clearly she is from a wealthy family that can afford to pay.  The other woman rests on a small stack of wood with only one thick log atop her body.  The rich woman has twenty-six men attending the cremation.  The poor one only two.

The attendant squeezes copious amounts of ghee over the rich woman's body and logs, throws handfuls of some amber-colored powder all over the logs and the body..  When the shaven-headed man lays the burning twigs below her, the dry logs quickly ignite, flames rising up.  But the poor woman's logs refuse to ignite. Over and over the attendant places more bundles of twigs below, but to no avail.  As flames consume the rich women, the poor woman lies with her pale pink shroud burnt away, revealing her slightly scorched body.

A strange scenario goes through my head.  I can hear the voice of the poor woman's soul lamenting to her husband:  "Can't you ever get anything right?  The same story all my life.  Never enough.  Always a ruppee short.  All my life there was never enough money for anything to be done properly.  And now you've even screwed up my funeral!"

I know she's dead and yet I feel this awful pain and humiliation for her.  As twenty-six men squat before the massive flames of the rich women, two men grumble to the cremation attendants about the poor woman's lack of fire as her blackened body lies exposed and vulnerable.

And as this drama plays out before the banks of the Holy Ganges River cows munch away at the wreaths of discarded marigolds.  One black goat attempts to hump a white goat.  Semi-wild pai dogs play out their alpha and submissive roles; the alpha males snarl and bark and the submissives whine and yelp.  Scrawny dirty children walk up to foreigners with their hands out asking for "Candy?"  "Money?"  Behind Frederico, myself and other onlookers to this spectacle a group of men play cards and gamble.  Water buffalo walk out of the water and up the steps of the ghat pissing yellow streams of hot piss. Young boys play cricket, the occasional "whack" when one of their flat wooden boards connects with the ball.  Men lather their hair and body, naked but for a small pair of briefs.  Boats cross the river.  Motor boats and row boats.  Women scrub clothes on the rocks.  Men swing their wet wash overhead in a arc, a loud "Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!" as the wet cloth hits the washing rock.  

A boy clangs the temple bell over and over, men beat drums, clang cymbals,speakers from the next Ghat blare recorded music.

Smoke billows from the massive flames of the rich women's cremation.  And the smoke pouring up out of the fire, the smoke blowing toward me, the smoke I'm unsuccessfully trying to filter out by holding my shawl over my mouth and nose like the Indian women, the smoke that still filters through--that smoke is the smoke of a women's burning flesh and bone and tendon and heart and spleen and brain and a million experiences.

She's dead and burning while goats copulate and street urchins beg for candy and that's just how it is.  Life ebbs and flows, dances and pirouettes, flames and sputters and coughs and ends while new life careens on its own wild course in a never-ending mad chaos.

And in India it's all out in the open, before your eyes.  It's in your nose and ears and in the dust that coats your skin.  And who knows?  Maybe Madame Bizarro and Space Baba engaged in conversation at the Happy Banana Cafe in Arambol were right--maybe we do suck up the molecules of every new place--the smoke of that burning corpse seeping into my pores.  And maybe her unrealized dreams might be manifested in my life.

And it all reminds me to LIVE LIVE LIVE because you never know when it might end.


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